Genetics (Intro)

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One of the most exciting scientific endeavours of the last century and into this one has been the astonishing progress in understanding the basic building blocks of sentient life, our life.

Few people alive today cannot of heard of the genetic material which defines who we are as a species and as individuals which is called DNA (DeoxriboNucleicAcid). At a biological level it is what defines both our commonality and our uniqueness.

Leaving aside the scientific complexities of this subject, in this series of blogs, I’ll be exploring some of the applications and consequences of these amazing discoveries.

For instance, there is much coverage of how understanding our genetic make-up can help us understand, diagnose and treat diseases more effectively.

Genes in and of themselves do not cause disease. It is the aberrations and mutations of genes which can lead to health problems. These mutations can involve faulty genes, missing parts of DNA or new functions being triggered.

Some health areas where genetic science is currently making improvements are:

Vaccines:
There are several ways in which genetic science helps here.
• Improved production techniques for current vaccines.
• Creation of new vaccines. This is especially useful in hard to replicate diseases.
• Avoiding the reduction in virulence of exiting vaccine cultures.
• Creating vaccines which can target several diseases at the same time.
• DNA injections to stimulate the recipients immune system to create anti-bodies.

Pathogens:
These are the biological entities which cause infectious diseases in our bodies.

Genetic science can be used to assist in the diagnosis of these illnesses, which then leads to the correct course of treatment.

Some diseases are very difficult to track down, and some are almost impossible to grow in a lab, so here genetics can assist in the understanding of these pathogens.

Health Evaluations:
Following on from some aspects noted above, by analysing a person’s DNA, it is sometimes possible to detect the presence of genetic mutations which could lead in the future to disease.

There is also the potential to genetically profile a person, so as to assess their predisposition to particular ilnesses or diseases. This can lead to recommendations on life-style choices and specific check-ups to look out for potential problems.

However, a predisposition is only a measure of risk, a measure of potential, it is not a factual prediction of what will happen. So genetic screening can raise a number of interesting questions such as: who has a legal right to this information, should it affect a person’s ability to get (or the cost of) health insurance and most sensitive of all – it can raise the spectre of aborting a pregnancy.

Gene therapy can also be used to devise better treatments and in the earlier diagnosis of problems – both of which improve our chances of recovery from illnesses. These aren’t necessarily always new treatments.

Spare Bits For A Rainy Day:
The cloning of body parts may sound like something from science fiction, that will only happen (if it happens at all) in the far distant future.

In fact, it is happening right now.

The advantage of creating body parts from our own genes is that our body’s immune system will not reject them. So we do not risk infection from donated body parts and we don’t need to take drugs to suppress their rejection.

I found the following book by Tara Acharya very helpful in understanding this highly complex subject:

The Human Genome Sourcebook

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And for a series of informed discussions on the ethical and moral issues raised by the application of genetics knowledge, the following book by L. L. McCabe and E. R. B. McCabe makes fascinating reading:

DNA: Promise & Peril

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