BIG STEPS IN GENOME SEQUENCING
The much-vaunted medical benefits of sequencing the human genome have recently received some vindication in clinical trials of the anti-cancer drug PLX4032. The dramatic potential of the drug for shrinking skin-cancer tumours was reported in August, and is confirmed by a recent paper in Nature.
But the real excitement stems from the approach: the drug was developed to target a specific carcinogenic mutation of a gene called BRAF, involved in cell growth. The problem is that there are several dangerous mutations of BRAF alone, and thousands of other genetic mutations that also cause cancer. But the new results show that targeting a particular mutation can be highly effective, hitting only those cancer cells that possess it instead of employing the scattergun attack of current cancer chemotherapies. If many mutant-specific drugs come online, rapid gene profiling of patients could enable them to be given precisely the right treatment, without the debilitating side-effects. That, however, will require the development of an awful lot of new drugs (see my article on p62).
Meanwhile, the announcement of the wheat genome might seem less thrilling, but drought and floods have devastated wheat yields in both Russia and China. Russia, one of the world’s biggest producers, has imposed an export ban that has sent wheat prices soaring, threatening the food security of millions. The riots in Mozambique over bread prices in early September, in which six people died, may be just a taste of what is to come.
This is why the wheat genome sequence is one of the most important so far, and why public access to the data which has been granted by the researchers, led by Neil Hall at Liverpool University, is valuable and commendable. The genetic information should point to shortcuts for breeding a new strain of hardier varieties, as well as identifying the specific genes that might be engineered to improve wheat’s resistance to drought and disease.
CLIMATE CHANGE HOT SEAT
There are good arguments for reforming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—and especially for improving the efficiency and transparency of its review process. A recent assessment by the InterAcademy Council, representing all the world’s major science academies, concluded as much, while stressing that the IPCC’s scientific conclusions are reliable and that it has generally worked well (see Randolph Kent, opposite). But should its chair, Rajendra Pachauri, stay? He has been pilloried for errors…