Genome power is about to sweep world: Nobel laureate
by Mark Metherell
June 9, 2011
NOBEL laureate Barry Marshall plans to become the first Australian to post his own full genetic code, or genome, on the internet, even though it does reveal unsettling insights.
His nearly-completed six-billion-piece code shows he is at nearly three times higher lifetime risk of macular degeneration and double for testicular cancer and for Alzheimer's disease.
''If I develop Alzheimer's disease, that's bad luck, but it's not going to worry me,'' says Professor Marshall.
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The power of the genome to reveal each individual's biological strengths and weaknesses will guide diagnosis and identify effective drugs for individual patients in a revolution about to sweep world medicine, he says.
''It is not going to be long before every Australian will be carrying their genome on a smart card.
''This is going to be an enormous and unprecedented help to their health,'' says the doctor, who swallowed a laboratory culture to prove that bacteria caused stomach ulcers.
It was an idea that confounded the medical orthodoxy but ultimately won him and Dr Robin Warren the Nobel prize.
At the National Press Club yesterday, Professor Marshall predicted that in a decade we would have our genome on our smart phones and be able to routinely gain access to those of prospective boyfriends or girlfriends.
People would get used to the swings and roundabouts of knowing their genetic make-up as the benefits to their health became clear and treatment got better-targeted.
He told of his wife's concern about her own mother's macular degeneration, which were allayed when a genome scan found she did not have her mother's gene for the blinding condition.
Treatments of conditions like high cholesterol would continue to improve as doctors took advantage of routinely upgraded refinements of genetic influences.
''Australians currently seem too paranoid to truly embrace genomics. Yet there will soon be thousands of human genomes publicly available,'' he says, pointing to the publishing of their genomes by gene map pioneer Dr Craig Venter and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. His comments come as Australian health authorities grapple with how to authorise new drugs dependent on pre-genetic testing. He believes that the growing demand for personal genomes - already available in preliminary form for as little as $200 - will require a huge increase in experts to interpret the lengthy sequences of letters comprising the human DNA.
Professor Marshall says Australia, like the US, should legislate against discriminatory practices like higher life insurance premiums on the basis of genetic tests.
Ronald Trent, professor of medical molecular genetics at Sydney University, says that any data individuals publish that might be interpreted as having an adverse health risk could potentially be used by life insurance companies, but not health funds, to determine policies.
But Professor Trent said Australia and the US systems were not comparable given Australian measures like the Disability Discrimination Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on genetic grounds, and the availability of universal health insurance.