Viewpoint: Genetics research was supposed to change human health. Is it time to reconsider investments in the field?

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Credit: St. Jude

Since its birth 30 years ago, proponents of the Human Genome Project have promised that genetics research would yield untold health benefits for all of us. Indeed, in 1990, James Watson asserted that failing to move the project ahead and usher in those benefits as fast as possible would be “essentially immoral.”

The COVID crisis, however, offers a supremely unwished-for opportunity to scrutinize the proponents’ promise, and to recalibrate the hope and money we invest in genetics. Such scrutiny and recalibration can be small steps on the path to fulfilling our nation’s professed commitment to the health of all of us.

[W]e continue to overinvest our hope in genetics, notwithstanding that with every passing year we understand in more detail why genetics can’t deliver as much as it once promised. Recently, the geneticist Francis Collins, who once led the Human Genome Project and who now directs all 27 of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said to the Wall Street Journal, with admirable frankness and breathtaking understatement, “The genetic architecture of common diseases is turning out to be more elaborate than we might have guessed.” That is, because of the fabulous complexity of the pathways from genes to the sorts of common diseases (like diabetes) that make people more vulnerable to a virus like COVID, genetics has not been able to offer the sorts of health benefits that geneticists envisioned 30 years ago.

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