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Human Genetics: Our Past and Our Future

Human Genetics: Our Past and Our Future

This video was recorded at MIT World Series: Soap Box. Will genomics vanquish our most common diseases, or create a society based on vile eugenics – or both? David Altshuler outlines these possibilities in his informal talk and conversation at the MIT Museum. Altshuler is a self-described optimist, and sees promise in current genetic research that attempts to pinpoint why some people develop diseases like adult-onset diabetes or schizophrenia. If we can identify the precise mechanisms inside cells that go haywire in individuals with an inherited predisposition to a certain disease, then it may be possible to design drugs much more accurately. "We're searching for a culprit who committed a crime, where the culprit is a mutation in a DNA sequence that made somebody get sick …. And scientists are the detectives -- CGI: Crime Gene Investigators," says Altshuler. Scientists have a very powerful tool in the human genome sequence, and they are quickly mapping out genes that cause diseases. But the very tools that permit insight into illness may also permit researchers to isolate genes for other human traits. And this has Altshuler musing: "How about hair loss, intelligence, criminality, athletic ability….Should society regulate the use of genetic information in reproductive choices?" What if insurance companies gain access to individuals' genetic predictors, and use this to determine risk, and rates? "There's no federal legislation to prevent someone from shaking your hand, scraping off DNA, doing a genetic test and not hiring you or refusing to give you insurance," Altshuler points out. Ultimately, he says, it will be in the hands of the public to strike a balance between restricting the use of genetic information, and permitting its application to cure disease.

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