10 Years in, Human Genome Mapping Yields No ‘Major Breakthroughs’

Ten years ago, scientists completed the first draft of the human genome project – a highly publicized effort that was supposed to lead to significant breakthroughs in our understanding – and subsequent treatment – of cancer. However, after a decade of study, many scientists are expressing their disappointment in the level of payoff earned from the expensive and time-consuming genome project.

Of course, that’s not to say that mapping the human genome has not been helpful. For example researchers now know that about 21,000 genes make up the human genome responsible for coding our cells and tissues. Previously, it was thought that as many as 100,000 genes could contribute to this portion of our genetic makeup. Additionally, many of these genes have been identified as contributors to cancer development.

Still, according to Robert Weinberg, co-founder of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, no “major breakthroughs” have yet been gleaned from human genome mapping.

While there is no doubt that human genome mapping has been helpful, Weinberg suggests that the exorbitant amount of time and money spent on coding our genome could have been better spent on more traditional research efforts – “The question is how much bang we’ve gotten for the buck, and from certain perspectives it’s been modest.”

It is estimated that the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland receives $500 million in annual funding.

However, not all researchers are as quick to abandon the benefits of genome mapping. According to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, “The promise of a revolution in human health remains quite real…those who somehow expected dramatic results overnight may be disappointed.”

From its outset, the human genome mapping project was meant to identify key targets within the human body for cancer treatment. By identifying pertinent genes within our system that affect the growth and spread of cancer, it is believed that effective cancer treatments can be produced.

Many new and viable paths for cancer treatment have already been identified thanks to the genome mapping project. However, techniques that target these identified genes have yet to reveal any major breakthroughs in treatment.