- 20 November 2014
Yesterday, the Society of Biology held its first one-day conference, Biology Now, with talks covering a vast array of bioscience from the way DNA is packed into a cell to the macroeconomics of the natural world.
The conference held at Charles Darwin House, in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) covered three themes: Tackling Human Health Challenges, People and Planet, and Genomic Data and Ethics.
Opening the inaugural event, Society president Professor Dame Jean Thomas FSB paid tribute to Fred Sanger, the double Nobel Prize winner whose work on the structure of proteins revolutionised the biosciences and inspired her life's work. Professor Thomas said that Sanger, whose memorial she attended recently, was 'as important to biology as Charles Darwin’.
Professor Michael Levin, of Imperial College London, opened the Tackling Human Health Challenges session, by explaining how RNA signatures in blood samples can now accurately diagnose TB, a notoriously difficult disease to detect. By studying which genes were switched on and off by TB, researchers have discovered that the bacteria is able to switch off certain pathways in the body’s immune response. Professor Munir Pirmohamed from the University of Liverpool explained how genomic data would bring 'transformational change to the UK health service' and help redefine certain disorders like hypertension into thousands of subtypes.
Pirmohamed explained how genetic screening has already proved invaluable in predicting how people will respond to drugs like warfarin, where the dosage required can vary from 0.5mg to 20mg. Testing people for two particular genes now allows clinicians to get patients into the ‘therapeutic range’ much quicker and keep them there for longer.
After lunch the topic moved to environment with our People and Planet session. Professor Ian Bateman OBE FSB, from the University of East Anglia, explored how and why the natural world is increasingly viewed in economic terms, saying, 'valuation is unavoidable, it is the essence of decision making'. Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland from Imperial College London explained how conservationists must also measure the wellbeing of local populations if their work is to be successful.
Finally, in our Genomic Data and Ethics session, Dr Mikhail Spivakov from the Babraham Institute, said 90% of disease associated mutations were found in areas of the genome that are not understood – ie. so-called non-coding regions. He said those studying big data need to move towards developing more quantitative models of relationships between genes and regulatory genes.
Mikhail was joined by Professor Richard Ashcroft FSB, a bioethicist from Queen Mary University of London, and Professor Melanie Welham FSB, BBSRC director of science, for a panel discussion on the ethical issues that may arise as genomic data is more widely used.
On the issue of incidental findings, and whether people would only want to know about potential diseases which were actionable, Ashcroft pointed out that ‘we might not always know what is actionable and what isn’t’. Welham suggested that a tiered approach to access to genomic health predictions, based on individual choice, might be appropriate.
On the issue of data protection, Spivakov said, ‘People take risks with personal data everyday through social media' and added 'Someone at some point will have their genomic data leaked - and it is most likely that nothing at all adverse will happen'.
A full report will be included in the first issue of The Biologist of 2015.