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Human Genome Project Will Revolutionize Medicine

Two years ago, a group of international scientists completed the Human Genome Project, which created a remarkable map of the genes in the human body. Today, scientists are continuing that work by decoding the genes from animals, bacteria and viruses. The Los Alamos National Laboratory in southwest New Mexico was part of the Human Genome Project. VOA's Deborah Block reports research into genes is yielding ways to fight disease.

A genome is the genetic composition of an organism. And the Human Genome Project was a daunting 13-year task to produce the precise sequence of the human genes.

An organism's DNA and chromosomes are chemicals that carry genetic information. The project identified at least 25,000 genes in human DNA. The DNA are arranged along tightly coiled threads of chromosomes in cells. And the order of the DNA creates each unique genetic profile.

Tom Brettin, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, says the Human Genome Project is helping find new methods of diagnosing and treating the 4,000 inherited diseases recognized so far. "We can see that it's inherited from mother or father to children, but we don't know exactly what it is that's the cause of the disease."

He continued, "With the sequence of the human chromosome, we can actually begin to look and say what's different in this particular person who has the disease in the chemical composition of their chromosome, as compared to maybe a healthy individual in the same family."

The manipulation of genes, known as gene therapy, which is already being used now, is expected to help stop hereditary diseases in the future. Drugs will eventually be tailored to an individual's genetic makeup.

But first, Mr. Brettin says, scientists need to figure out why some drugs are more effective than others in people with the same disease. "So [in the] treatment of cancer, for example, why do some treatments work in some people and not in others? And one of the hypotheses right now is it's actually because of the chromosome composition of the individual receiving the treatment. And so you can imagine that through diagnostics that look at the sequence of the human chromosome, one could determine what the best course of treatment would be."

Although scientists have a better understanding of genes, they still don't know how they work. And since genes only make up two percent of the human genome, scientists still have much to learn.

Mr. Brettin explains, "We really only understand what one percent of that data actually means. Genes are small regions of the chromosome. But there are large regions in between genes that we don't have any clue as to what role they're playing in the development of an individual or the onset of a disease."

But he says the advances that scientists have already made in genetic research are sure to revolutionize medicine. "Clearly, human health will be changed in the 21st century as a result. Everything from early warning diagnostics, so that someone can change their style of life-to help prevent the onset of a particular disease, to these new forms of treatments targeted toward specific individuals, or general treatments that are the result of understanding the human genome."

The Los Alamos National Laboratory is continuing its genome research in areas such as decoding the genes in bacteria. It's hoped that research will lead to reduced pollution and global warming, and cleaner fuels.