In the past few decades, we’ve sequenced the human genome (as well as the genomes of a number of other species), and begun to unravel the mysteries it contains. Cloning techniques have been pioneered and the possibilities of transgenic animals have been investigated. Researchers are beginning to investigate human genes—and the human genome—and examine the mechanism behind a wide range of genetic disorders.
Where will this research take us? It’s hard to say what genetic research in the next 10 years will bring, but it’s a good bet that as far as humans are concerned, investigating the genetic mechanisms which underlie diseases—even those which are not currently known to have a direct genetic link—is a major key to improving the overall health of the species.
One highly relevant example of a disease with known genetic links is breast cancer. Two genes have so far been discovered to have a major effect on the risk a women has on developing the cancer, and there are likely to be other genes which contribute to the risk, too. In addition, genetic predisposition is not the only factor involved. Dietary and other environmental factors are also likely to come into play.
Breast Cancer Research in the Future
So far in genetic research on breast cancer, certain gene variants—named BRCA1 and BRCA2—have been discovered thatc predispose women to developing breast cancer. Women who carry either of these gene variants are now strongly recommended to have regular breast screening examinations to ensure that cancer is discovered early if it develops. Some women have even opted for more drastic measures, having breasts or ovaries removed to prevent or reduce the risk of developing the cancer.
However, this is by no means the end of the story as far as breast cancer goes: there are other genes, and other factors, including environmental factors, involved in the development of the disease. In addition, there are multiple types of breast cancer—some develop in pre-menopausal, and some in post-menopausal women. Some grow and spread aggressively, some spread only slowly. Each different type likely has different underlying genetic causes.
Further research in breast cancer will concentrate on investigating other genes implicated in the development of the disease, including genes which may contribute to the aggressiveness of the cancer, or determine when in life various types are likely to develop. In addition, determining the nature of the non-genetic causes which increase risk are important, as well as examining the relationship between genetic and non-genetic risk factors.
Other research may identify ways in which women can reduce their breast cancer risk, even when they carry those dangerous gene variants. This type of research may allow women to avoid drastic measures such as breast removal, while minimizing their cancer risk.