Almost 60 secondary teachers from across the country attended this conference on 28 June aimed at increasing delegates’ knowledge and understanding of some fast-moving topics in genetics which are now appearing on A-level syllabuses.
The conference was chaired by Robert Johnston who began proceedings with an introduction to the aims and activities of the Galton Institute.
The first presentation was given by Professor Graeme Black from the Centre for Genomic Medicine in Manchester. He considered ‘Gene sequencing and genetic screening techniques’. He described how Sanger sequencing had led the way but now ‘next generation sequencing’ is revolutionising work in this field. However, it generates enormous amounts of data which must be handled and interpreted by bioinformaticians. He gave examples of genetic ophthalmic disorders that have been studied in this way and concluded with a consideration of how ethical issues will arise as such work becomes more widely used.
Dr Rob White from the University of Cambridge gave the second talk on ‘HOX genes and regulation of gene expression’. Having first considered the history of HOX genes in Drosophila melanogaster, he went on to look at how they code for transcription factors that bind to DNA at specific sites in almost all animals. Nowadays they are regarded as ‘micromanagers’ that regulate a large number of regulatory genes, at a variety of different levels. Some also appear to control neuronal circuitry in the CNS.
Professor White went on to address the complex issue of gene regulation, describing ‘enhancers’, ‘cohesion complexes’ which control loops in the DNA, ‘insulators’ which act as fences within the genome and regulatory domains in the genome called ‘Topologically-Associated Domains’ or TADs.
The final talk of the morning was given by Professor Bryan Turner from the University of Birmingham who discussed ‘Epigenetics: environmental and genetic factors’. He regarded epigenetics as ‘powerful’ and looked at how it allows us to interact with our environment and how it enables us to “escape the tyranny of our DNA”. He considered the nucleosome to be the beating heart of epigenetics as it is a sophisticated signalling agent, affected by the environment. He believed passionately that DNA is deterministic but is useless without epigenetic factors and wondered whether epigenetic changes were germ-line heritable. If so, perhaps Lamarck wasn’t quite so wrong after all. He concluded with a brief look at the role epigenetics may have in treating cancer using ‘Histone de-acetylase Inhibitors’.
Following lunch, Dr Andrew Wood from the University of Edinburgh spoke about the fast-moving topic of ‘Gene editing (CRISPR/Cas9): principles, current and future uses’. He began by describing the basic principles involved using engineered endonucleases to make double strand breaks in DNA. He regards it as a “universal toolkit” for reverse or forward genetics, much of the early work having been carried out on C.elegans. He considered future potential uses in somatic gene therapy, both in vivo and ex vivo and questioned how far germline editing would be allowed in the future and whether it would be both acceptable and safe.
Dr Rhona Macleod from the Manchester Centre for Genomic Medicine addressed the conference on ‘Genetic counselling’, what it involves, how to train as one and how it has become a part of a much larger team in the Clinical Genetics Service. To help explain her role, she considered some real cases in a large family with a history of breast cancer. She explained how she approaches issues, allowing families time to understand the problem and helping them make the right decisions for themselves.
Professor Andrew Read from the University of Manchester gave the final talk on ‘Precision medicine’. He began by stressing that this is not a new form of medicine but that modern biotechnology will allow improvement in three areas: diagnosis, prediction and treatment. He introduced the role of SNPs and GWAS as diagnostic tools and went into some detail in considering pharmacogenetics, an area of precision medicine which offers considerable hope in the treatment of certain diseases. There is huge variation between people in how drugs act, are metabolised and eventually eliminated and with a better understanding of this, it becomes easier to identify the ‘effective dose’ for a patient. He finished with a look at how cancer treatment can be individually targeted using precision medicine.
Finally, Katherine Cresswell and Steven Edwards from Nowgen described the role of the Nowgen Centre and explained what opportunities are available to young people who want to find out more about the research that is done and who may want to be involved in public engagement exercises. Robert Johnston
You can see the following presentations:
Professor Andrew Read’s presentation here.
Professor Bryan Turner’s presentation here.
Dr Rob White’s presentation here.
Dr Andrew Wood’s presentation here.
Mr Robert Johnston’s presentation here.