The University Record, December 17, 2001

Collins: Genetics leaves room for hope

By Colleen Newvine
News and Information Services

Wiesner Symposium keynote speaker Francis Collins (left) chats with Interim President B. Joseph White before presenting his talk. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
A typical doctor visit in the future could mean medicine tailored to your genetic makeup or the consultation on your predisposition to a certain disease. One researcher responsible for helping to map 30,000 human genes says medical science is moving closer to using gene testing to identify those at highest risk for disease, as well as ways to treat them.

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, spoke about the coming implications of genetics in medicine during his keynote address at the Wiesner Symposium Dec. 7.

While the developments have great potential, Collins warned they also open complex debates: Will all people, or only the wealthy, have access to advanced treatments? How will society cope with knowledge that could lead to job or insurance discrimination? Does this progress mean we are taking charge of evolution, and if so, how does that affect our relationship with God?

Collins said that while genetic defects might directly cause a disease like cystic fibrosis, a disease like AIDS, which occurs after exposure to a virus, also has a genetic component because some people’s genes might give them more natural immunity to the virus.

By understanding disease’s genetic roots, researchers can find new ways to treat and prevent disease. For example, Collins predicted that:

  • In 10 years, we will have tests predicting likelihood of disease based on genes and treatments associated with the results, as well as pharmacogenomics, administering drugs using knowledge of how a given patient will react to the compound.

  • In 20 years, not only will doctors prescribe gene-based designer drugs, but gene therapy, actually altering the genes, will offer treatment for certain diseases. Perhaps by this time, sequencing personal genomes will be affordable enough to become part of an individual’s medical records.

  • In 30 years, genomics-based health care will be the norm, with preventative and therapeutic treatments for most diseases.

    Collins, on leave from the University, kicked off two days of events hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Life Sciences Values and Society Program (LSVSP).

    Also on the agenda was a dinner lecture by Harold Shapiro, chairman of the National Bioethics Commission and former U-M president, who also spoke at the Department of Psychiatry’s Raymond W. Waggoner Lectureship on Ethics and Values in Medicine (see related story page 6).

    Panel discussions on such topics as race, ethnicity and the human genome, and the challenges of commercialization included some of the country’s most respected life sciences leaders.

    In introductory remarks, Fawwaz Ulaby, vice president for research, explained that the goal of the Wiesner Symposium is to help shape the national agenda at a high level by bringing together leaders from academic, government, business and non-profit roles.

    Science issues are easy, relatively speaking, but the social questions science raises are the tough nut to crack, said Richard Lempert, director of the Values and Society Program. Collins’ presentation was co-sponsored as the second-annual Distinguished LSVSP speaker.

    To view the Collins lecture on your computer, visit the Web at www.lifesciences.umich.edu/news/collins.html and scroll down to the “see the webcast” link. You’ll need RealPlayer, and a link to download it for free is just below the webcast link.