August 10, 2012

Are the stakes too high in genomics?

If you want people to be creative, putting pressure on them is counterproductive. The threat to fire someone unless they have some brilliant ideas is unlikely to motivate them in the desired way.

When it comes to the commercialisation of genomics, there is a lot of pressure to come up with new things. Those working in the field feel that genomics has enormous potential. For those observing genomics from the outside, there is often a vague sense that so far it has failed to deliver.

For both those within the field and outside of it there seems to be a consensus that if genomics is to become an ubiquitous technology, it will be because of its widespread adoption in healthcare.

I would like to suggest that most progress in the commercialisation of genomics may come from somewhere else entirely. Possibly from somewhere unexpected where there is less pressure to deliver and less competition, allowing for more creativity. Besides that, healthcare is one of the most strictly regulated industries, making innovation even less likely.

There are several applications of genomics outside of healthcare that show great promise. One of them, forensics, I reviewed in a blog post two week ago.

An even more harmless area is what could be called the genomics of irrelevance: There are plenty of genetic variants that predict things that no-one cares about. Examples include whether your pee smells differently after you eat asparagus, whether you earwax is runny, or whether you feel the urge to sneeze when looking into the sun. The website of 23andMe lists dozens more.

Could it be that for most people, including potential hobbyists, exploring the genomics of such harmless traits holds more appeal than learning about their risk for Alzheimer's?

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