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Patron: Her Majesty the Queen


The Royal Scottish Society of Arts
Showcasing Scotland's Science, Technology and Innovation

4th Meeting of the 186th Session (2006-2007)

Genetics: The New Fortune Telling?

Professor Nick Hastie CBE PhD FRS FRSE FMedSci
Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit

In the Wolfson Suite, Ground Floor
Edinburgh University Library
George Square, Edinburgh
On Monday 15th January 2007, at 7pm

Completion of the human genome sequence has been heralded as one of the defining moments in science. Undoubtedly knowledge of all the genes will bring a much greater understanding of human biology, and an appreciation of disease mechanisms, leading to new rational treatments. Some scientific luminaries are even painting a scenario in which we will be able to use an individuals genome sequence to make accurate predictions about the diseases to which they will succumb. The same scientists are telling us that designer babies are around the corner, perhaps a mere 50 years away.

The picture painted by these prophets does not reflect reality, either in terms of the dynamics of disease susceptibility or our current lack of understanding or ability to manipulate complex human traits. The situation is just too complicated. Most of this oversimplification and the publics understandable fear of genetics, arises through extrapolation from the rare Mendelian disorders that run in families, such as Huntingtons Disease or Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. In these cases, an inherited mutation in a single gene will lead inevitably to a life-threatening disease. This has given a skewed deterministic perspective that is not relevant for most of us. Disease susceptibility and most of our physiological and behavioural characteristics are likely to be controlled by numerous genetic variants interacting with a variety of environmental and lifestyle factors. As a consequence, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to make accurate predictions about the diseases we will develop, nor the way we look or behave. Notwithstanding this complexity, we should be able to identify some genetic risk factors that will lead to a new understanding of disease and to new treatments. I will discuss examples where genetic understanding has already led to development of powerful new drugs such as statins. Furthermore, we may be able to identify individuals at greater risk of a particular illness and target them for altered lifestyle or chemoprevention. In the short-medium term it is vital that we identify disease inducing lifestyle and environmental factors and try to engage people and government in the public health debate.

In terms of designer babies, this is science fiction as, not only do we have limited understanding of the numerous genetic and environmental factors that influence traits, but there are just not enough embryos to allow selection of more than a few very simple traits, if such exist.

Professor Nick Hastie is Director of the Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh. This is one of the largest MRC establishments and its goal is to understand the mechanisms underlying human genetic disease and normal human biology. Professor Hastie has worked in many areas including gene expression, genome organisation and protein evolution. He has had a long-term interest in human developmental genetics, concentrating on the childhood kidney cancer, Wilms tumour. Until recently he sat on the MRC MCMB Board and the MRC Strategy Development Group. Professor Hastie sits on the Scientific Executive Board of Cancer Research UK and is Chairperson of a number of Scientific Advisory Boards including that for the Sanger Institute. Professor Hastie was one of the twenty UK International Scholars of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was European Editor of the leading journal Genes & Development for a decade and continues to sit on the Editorial Board of this journal. Professor Hastie was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2002. In 2006 Professor Hastie was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Edinburgh and a CBE in the Queens Birthday Honours List.

Location of meeting

Society Business

The President, Professor Anthony Busuttil, will be in the Chair

Members of the Public are welcome to attend

Jane Ridder-Patrick, Secretary
Telephone: 0131 556 2161

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