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Chances of a ‘gene passport’ small

It’s getting easier and easier to have yourself tested for the presence of all kinds of genes. In the meantime, scientists are trying to find genes that could lead to certain illnesses. Are we all about to get a ‘gene passport’ that describes which illnesses we have a greater chance of catching? Charles Buys, professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Groningen, doesn’t think so.

‘In clinical genetics, we’re busy with a lot of illnesses that are actually rather rare but can have a great impact on the families that suffer them’, says Buys. ‘At the moment, all the attention is shifting to the major national diseases and people are trying to isolate the genes that can influence the occurrence of diabetes, obesity, heart and vascular diseases, asthma, rheumatism, common cancers and psychiatric disorders. A lot is expected of that research. But those diseases are usually a result of an interplay between probably a large number of different genes plus environmental factors.’

Small contribution

Buys therefore wonders what this type of research is actually going to produce. ‘If one of these illnesses involves just a few genes with a major contribution, then we can achieve something. But if all kinds of different genes are involved, each playing only a minor part in the occurrence of an illness, you need genetic material from huge numbers of patient and control groups – probably more than is possible. That means we hit a dead end.’ Nevertheless, Buys doesn’t think we should stop searching. ‘We should certainly try, because you never know in advance how many genes are going to be involved. But I think you should decide well in advance how much money you want to spend on the research. If you don’t find anything with one disease, move on to a different one.’

Uneasiness

Occasionally genes are found related to these major national illnesses, but they turn out barely to increase the risks of catching the disease. Buys thinks that we actually don’t benefit all that much from this in practice. ‘You’d only create uneasiness if you tell people that they have that type of gene. With cancer in particular, it’s clear that environmental factors can have a massive influence. You can’t tell people that they have an increased likelihood, and then say we’re unable to say whether that likelihood is ever going to result in the disease, or when. In addition, many people, for whatever reason, simply don’t want to know that sort of thing.’

Junior school

There are certain genetic abnormalities whereby the chances are very high that they will result in a disease. This includes some types of breast cancer. Buys: ‘In women with a certain genetic abnormality, twenty percent will not get breast cancer and eighty percent will. Women who lost their mothers to this illness when they were young sometimes have their breasts amputated to prevent the disease. These are complicated issues.’ Buys thinks that genetics education should begin early. ‘We can already explain what DNA is and what mutations are at junior school. Children are eager to learn at that age. Knowledge about genetics is essential if you are faced later with difficult decisions in that area. In the next few decades, the influence of genetics on our daily lives will only increase.’

Curriculum Vitae

Charles Buys (1942) studied biology (bacterial genetics, biochemistry and biostatistics) in Utrecht and gained his PhD on a protein biochemical subject at the University of Groningen. He has been working on human genetics in Groningen since 1976, and in 1987 he became professor of Anthropogenetics and chair of the department of Medical Genetics, later the department of Clinical Genetics at University Hospital Groningen, and since 2006 the department of Genetics of the University Medical Center Groningen. In 2006 he was made a Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion for his exceptional academic achievements. He is currently a member of the national Health Council (since 2000) and of the General Board of the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (since 2001), to name but two.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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