George Church

Credit: Marilyn Schairer

George Church: Genome Sequencing Is The Key To Your Hereditary Health

October 6, 2016

If you could learn all about your genetic makeup and what diseases your family history bestows upon you at birth—and it would only cost you $1000 to find out … would you do it?

George Church, a genetics and health sciences professor at Harvard Medical School and MIT who was on the short list of finalists for the Nobel Prize for chemistry, encourages people to take advantage of the latest technology he creatively developed in his innovative work in genomic science. Church is widely recognized for decoding an individual’s DNA or genome sequence using a tool to edit genes that he developed known as a CRISPR, which reveals genetic issues that can result in a person taking “actionable consequences” on health-related diseases.

He helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005, in which Professor Church decoded his own genome as part of the world’s open access genome process. He tells WGBH News he was “guinea pig number one,” studying his own genome, which allowed his cells to be studied in synthetic biology human research. 

Church learned he has some recessive genes that could have affected his offspring if his spouse had the same ones. He also learned he had a gene that put him at risk for lung problems, so he should steer clear of smoke. Another benefit from obtaining his own genome sequencing was learning he doesn’t have any risk of dementia, which had concerned his children and others within his family.

Church says each person has approximately 3,000 medically actionable genes, but a total of about 30,000 genes or more. He says genome sequencing is bigger than genetic testing and explained it this way: If you took all the genetic tests that exist plus some, that would be genome testing.

He says most people see it as useless, but at some point he expects in the future that there will be a major breakthrough when someday everyone will do genome sequencing.

Church thought actress Angelina Jolie’s public announcement about genetic testing for hereditary breast cancer would have been the tipping point for more of the public to seek the testing, but while that hasn't happened just yet, he is confident someday it will. He says it cost about $1,000 to decode a person's genome, which allows someone to make a potentially life-saving medical decision about future diseases.

The utility of the new tool, according to Church, “includes things ranging from engineering wild organisms like mosquitoes to eliminate malaria to eliminate human beings through gene therapy to deal with infectious diseases and inherited diseases as well as changing agricultural species in a variety of ways.”

Church called genomic sequencing awe inspiring.

“When I look through a microscope or more powerful devices I see, the deeper you look the more stuff there is," he said. "It’s like looking through the most complicated spacecraft that any sci-fi movie has ever had in it, times a million.”

To listen to the extended interview with Dr.George Church click on the audio file above.


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