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Jewish World Review April 9, 2003 / 7 Nisan 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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The genome triumph: Though it's laudable, DNA project won't tell life's secrets | Scientists this month will celebrate a remarkable achievement that almost certainly will lead to better health care for all of us.

But as they raise a toast to the completion of the sequencing of the human genome, we should not imagine that medical utopia is just around the corner.

Life - especially in its labyrinthine, cellular details - is almost breathtakingly complicated. And the sobering reality is that 50 years after James Watson and Francis Crick described the double helix of DNA, our ignorance about exactly how the human body works is almost encyclopedic.

Researchers completed a rough draft of the human genome - the instructions in each cell for how life grows and maintains itself - in 2000. Since then, scientists have worked to finish sequencing the genome. That is, they have been determining the precise order of the three billion bits of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that carry hereditary information.

They're finally done. And the National Human Genome Research Institute is planning a celebration and seminar April 14 and 15 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

The completed genome sequence is a momentous accomplishment for researchers trying to sort out how genes work and what diseases genetic defects cause. After all, the 30,000 to 35,000 genes scattered along the strands of DNA determine a great deal about our lives.

But it's wrong to suggest that they determine everything. And we set ourselves up for huge disappointment if we expect the life sciences now to save us from most diseases by a week from Tuesday.

I like the way Bruce R. Korf, chairman of the University of Alabama-Birmingham's Department of Genetics, puts it: "We have given names to genes, but we are a long way from knowing how they function. It is like somebody handing you a city phone book and hoping you can use it to determine what is going to happen tomorrow in that city."

We can blame some of the hype about biomedical progress on politicians. When the first draft of the human genome was announced in mid-2000, President Bill Clinton swooned that it was "the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind." And British Prime Minister Tony Blair called it "a revolution in medical science whose implications far surpass even the discovery of antibiotics."

Such language can make people with chronic or terminal illness imagine they soon will be able to resume their normal lives because biomedicine is about to give them back their health.

There certainly are reasons to be hopeful because the life sciences are making steady, encouraging progress. But the road ahead is long and difficult. And it's simply wrong to sell false hope to desperate people. That was clear to me last fall when I attended a seminar at the National Institutes of Health on stem cell research, itself the occasion of much hype. And it's clear to me now as NIH prepares to mark completion of the genome sequencing work.

The practice of medicine has evolved extensively over the centuries. Even in my lifetime, changes have been dramatic. For instance, treatments that my home-visiting family physician didn't have when I had three bouts of childhood pneumonia are available today for other children.

But despite such advances, much of medicine still is instinct, guesswork and, well, art. Knowing the human genome will help a lot. It will give health care professionals a reliable map of the body's internal wiring.

As Korf says, "For the first time, medicine will be able to approach medical problems by being able to ... understand precisely what is wrong and determine if it is fixable."

In other words, scientists will have given doctors a crucial new tool to help cure what ails us. But what ails us - with rare exceptions - is not solely determined by our genes. It's much more complicated than that, involving our environment, lifestyle and maybe even our own spirit.

It helps to recall the words of Psalm 139:18, that the human body is "fearfully and wonderfully made." It does not yield its secrets easily.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved