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New Concerns Raised Over Value of Genome-Wide Disease Studies

June 21, 2017

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Compare the genomes of enough people with and without a disease, and genetic variants linked to the malady should pop out. So runs the philosophy behind genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which researchers have used for more than a decade to find genetic ties to diseases such as schizophrenia and rheumatoid arthritis. But a provocative analysis now calls the future of that strategy into question — and raises doubts about whether funders should pour more money into these experiments.

GWAS are fast expanding to encompass hundreds of thousands, even millions, of patients (see ‘The genome-wide tide’). But biologists are likely to find that larger studies turn up more and more genetic variants — or ‘hits’ — that have minuscule influences on disease, says Jonathan Pritchard, a geneticist at Stanford University in California. It seems likely, he argues, that common illnesses could be linked by GWAS to hundreds of thousands of DNA variants: potentially, to every single DNA region that happens to be active in a tissue involved in a disease.

In a paper published in Cell on 15 June1, Pritchard and two other geneticists suggest that many GWAS hits have no specific biological relevance to disease and wouldn’t serve as good drug targets. Rather, these ‘peripheral’ variants probably act through complex biochemical regulatory networks to influence the activity of a few ‘core’ genes that are more directly connected to an illness.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.