Everyone knows if a child resembles his parents it is because they have the same genes, which are contained within chromosomes that are made from deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Not everyone, however, knows that DNA is the cornerstone of life, that it holds genetic information needed for the development and proper functioning of living organisms. Here we present the history of DNA and of the discoveries that have led to biotechnologies and predictive medicine, which could make the word “disease” obsolete.
DNA, a continuous discovery
1865: Johann Gregor Mendel discovers the laws of inheritance
1907: Thomas Hunt Morgan discovers that chromosomes carry genetic information
1944: Oswald Avery discovers that genes are made from deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA
1953: Watson and Crick discover the three-dimensional structure of DNA, a double-stranded helix which run anti-parallel.
1973: The first patent on recombinant DNA technology, which alters the DNA of one organism by inserting a fragment of DNA from another organism inside the first
1975: The first biotechnology company is founded in the United States
1976: The first cancer-associated gene is identified
1977: Human insulin becomes the first genetically engineered product
1978: First gene transfer between mammals
1982: Artificial human insulin becomes the first pharmaceutical product obtained through biotechnology
1985: DNA fingerprinting methods determine distinct genetic characteristics in each individual
1986: The human genome project is launched all over the world
1992: First anti-cancer gene therapy
1997: Gene therapy is successfully used to grow new blood vessels, creating natural bypasses
1999: The gene that affects longevity is identified
2001: The complete sequence of the human genome is published on line
2007: First form of artificial life, a synthetic chromosome that Craig Venter obtained by modifying Mycoplasma genitalium bacteria
2008: The UK approves hybrid human-animal embryo research
DNA and Modern Disease: The Use of Biotechnology
In recent decades, great emphasis has been given to the presence of irregularities in the double helix of DNA as a cause of human disease. Today we know that things are much more complicated. The influences of both environmental factors and the association of different gene sequences are so crucial that it is impossible to generalise. This is because two types of disease exist: monofactorial, in which the mutation of a single gene is enough to bring about disease, and multifactorial, in which a combination of genetic and environmental factors is necessary for the development of disease.
Today experiments focus on the relationship between DNA and multifactorial factors, and its use in biotechnology. Biotechnology uses living organisms, or their purified subcellular components, to produce results that are useful in different sectors such as health.
Recent scientific progress in biotechnology has brought about developments in advanced therapies. This emerging sector in biomedicine offers new opportunities for the treatment of disease or dysfunction in the human body.
Medicine for advanced therapies can be classified into four main groups:
- Gene therapy medicines: contain genes that lead to a therapeutic, prophylactic or diagnostic effect. “Recombinant” genes (created inside a laboratory) are inserted into the body normally to treat a variety of diseases including genetic disorders, cancer and long-term illnesses.
- Somatic-cell therapy medicines: contain cells or tissues that have been manipulated to change their biological characteristics or cells or tissues that are not intended to be used for the same essential functions in the body. They can be used to cure, diagnose and prevent disease.
- Tissue-engineered medicines: contain cells or tissues that have been modified in order to be used to repair, replace, regenerate or substitute human tissue.
- Combined ATMPs: contain one or more medical devices as an integral part of the medicine. One example is cells embedded in a biodegradable matrix or scaffold.
A Revolution on the Horizon: Predictive Medicine
Predictive medicine is personalised medicine. DNA is analysed to establish the best and most effective treatment with the least amount of risk in each individual situation. Even ordinary antibiotics do not come with general rules of use that guarantee the best conditions of treatment for everyone. The type of antibiotic and dosage prescribed should be adjusted for each person. While this is not possible today, it most likely will be in the future with the development of pharmacogenomics. The real problem will be in making everything balance with the living habits and environment in which a patient lives. Only extensive studies will lead us closer to ideal condition predictions. According to scientific authorities, this too will be possible. In the last few years, scientists have joined together in research consortiums to analyse very large population samples, such as the research being conducted in the UK that involves 500,000 people.
The influence these discoveries will have on society is still completely unknown. The strict correlation between smoking and cancer has been known for years and yet people have not stopped smoking. Knowledge does not always bring about action.
If progress in genetic knowledge becomes extensive, we will see the beginnings of an incredibly complex and personalised sort of medicine that will not aim at curing disease, but impeding its onset. Basically, the words patient, therapy and disease could become obsolete.
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