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Do Bad Genes Beget Disease? Hey, Not So Fast!

The purpose of genetic testing is to find altered genes that could cause disease. Consequently, people could be treated, or prospective parents can make decisions about having children. However, scientists are finding that having a gene which causes disease doesn’t necessarily cause that disease!

We are all mutants

Researchers at Cambridge and Cardiff universities found that a normal person typically has about 400 DNA mutations, and that 10 percent of people who have these variants will probably come down with the genetically prescribed disease. However, the researchers also found that people carrying these disease-causing mutations usually have a very mild version of the genetic disease, or do not develop it until later in life.

Doubting the wisdom

The research (published in the Dec. 6 edition of the American Journal of Human Genetics) casts some doubt on the wisdom of treating someone for a genetic disease solely due to a genetic test. Furthermore, it also raises ethical questions about discussing individual results in a clinical test in which results were not tied to any participant.

The study measured mutations in the genomes of 179 people who donated samples to the 1000 Genomes Pilot Project, which collected data from healthy individuals, as well as data from the Human Gene Mutation Database, which catalogues mutations reported in various scientific studies. Neither of these products matches an individual to a specific genome.

A double recession

In most of the cases examined, the mutation was a ‘recessive’ gene- in this case the defective gene was masked by a healthy version (humans always have two versions of any gene). A recessive gene will cause a disease only if both recessive versions are present. The one-tenth of people who had disease-causing variants either had two recessive genes, or a mutated, dominant gene.

“Doomed, doomed, we’re all doomed!”….well, not quite

While classical genetics would say that these 10 percent are doomed to illness, David Cooper, the leader author of the study from Cardiff, says not quite. “We now know that healthy people can possess many damaged or even completely inactivated proteins without any noticeable impact on their health. It is extremely difficult to predict the clinical consequences of a given genetic variant.”

How are we going to tell them?

One problem is that data libraries like the Gene Mutation Database do not yet provide complete profiles of every genetic disease in existence- they are only as good as the studies that are included. The more studies and genomes are studied, the more accurate the database becomes.

But until that moment occurs, what should we be telling healthy people with ‘bad’ genes?

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