30 Years Since the Human Genome Project Began, What’s Next?
December 30, 2020
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In 1987, when researchers first used the word genomics to describe the newly developing discipline of mapping DNA, Eric Green had just finished medical school. A few years later, he found himself working on the front lines of the young field’s marquee moon shot: the Human Genome Project. To lead the nation’s participation in the global effort, Congress established the National Human Genomics Research Institute, or NHGRI, in 1989.

Sequencing the entire human genome began the following year, and it took 13 years to complete. Not long after, in 2009, Green took the helm of the research institute. By then, NHGRI’s mission had evolved to include expanding the field of genomics into medicine. That meant funding and coordinating projects aimed at pinpointing the mutations responsible for genetic disorders, then developing tests to diagnose them and therapies to treat them. And even more broadly, it meant generating evidence that DNA data could effectively improve outcomes, even for people who don’t suffer from rare diseases.

To help chart that course, one of Green’s tasks is to periodically put together a strategic vision for the field. Aimed at celebrating progress, identifying technological gaps, and inspiring scientists to pursue the most impactful areas of research, his team published its latest projection in October. For the first time, Green and his colleagues outlined a set of 10 bold predictions about what might be realized in human genomics by the year 2030. Among them: High schoolers will show off genetic analyses at the science fair, and genomic testing at the doctor’s office will become as routine as basic blood work.

Three decades after that sequencing race began, we’ve perhaps reached the end of the early genomics era, a period of explosive technological growth that led to breakthroughs like the sequencing of the first dog, chicken, and cancer cells and the advent of cheap home DNA tests. The field has matured to the point that genomics is nearly ubiquitous in all of biology—from fighting invasive giant hornets to brewing better-tasting beer. Genomic medicine is no longer theoretical. But it’s also not widespread. Although scientists have mapped the human genome, they do not yet completely understand it. Green spoke to WIRED about what the next decade, and the next era in genomics, may have in store. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WIRED: October marked the 30th anniversary of the Human Genome Project. When you look around at where we are today, how does it live up to the expectations you had for the impacts the project would make in medicine?

Eric Green: I was inside the Human Genome Project from day one, and I can’t stress enough how back then we didn’t know what we were doing. We had this big audacious goal of reading out the 3 billion letters of the human instruction book, but we didn’t have the technology to do it. We didn’t have the methods. We didn’t even have a functional internet. There was no playbook. So, as someone who got into this as a young physician, I could sort of imagine that one day genomics might be part of clinical care. But I truly did not think it would happen in my lifetime.

If we go back just 10 years, nobody was really using genomics in health care. We fantasized then about the idea of having a patient in front of us, where we did not know what was wrong with them, and being able to sequence their genome and figure it out. That was a hypothetical in 2011. Now it’s routine. At least for people suspected of having a rare genetic disease.

That’s amazing. But also, it’s still a far cry from some of the hype around what the Human Genome Project was going to accomplish. In his remarks at the White House in 2000, then-NHGRI director Francis Collins said it would likely take 15 or 20 years to see a “complete transformation in therapeutic medicine,” promising personalized treatments for everything from cancer to mental illness. Obviously, that hasn’t exactly come to pass. Why not?

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