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Is modern genetics a blind alley? No

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 30 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1088
  1. D J Weatherall, regius professor emeritus
  1. 1Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS
  1. Correspondence to: liz.rose{at}

    Genetic research has yet to make the promised impact on medical practice. James Le Fanu (doi:10.1136/bmj.c1156) thinks that it never will, but D J Weatherall believes it already has and will continue to do so

    The remarkable developments in molecular biology that followed the discovery of the structure and function of DNA in 1953 are widely regarded as being comparable to Darwin’s description of evolution in the 19th century. I was therefore surprised to be invited to discuss the proposition that modern genetics is a blind alley.

    Granted, in their enthusiasm some of the early protagonists of molecular biology underestimated the time it would take to bring some of the potential to fruition. Such overoptimism was particularly evident in the reactions of some medical scientists to the completion of the human genome project. They predicted that within the foreseeable future medical practice would be revolutionised; the genome would provide the answer to the causes of many of our common killers, and preventive medicine and therapeutics would become personalised, based on our individual genetic diversity.

    However it is already apparent that, because we have fewer genes than expected and the structure of many of them is conserved across species, the …

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