Dr. George Church
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Dr. George Church

Program Date March 19, 2011

“THE PERSONAL GENOMICS REVOLUTION”

The advent of direct-to-consumer DNA testing means that anyone with cash and curiosity can now glimpse their genetic makeup. Personal genomics will soon become common currency as we strive to understand our individual risk profiles for disease, our physical and biological characteristics, and our personal ancestries.  What are the benefits, consequences, and societal implications of the “Personal Genomics Revolution?” There is no better authority to bring to The Richmond Forum than Dr. George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and creator of the Personal Genome Project.

BACKGROUND

In 2008 TIME magazine named personal genetic testing the invention of the year writing, “We are at the beginning of a personal-genomics revolution that will transform not only how we take care of ourselves but also what we mean by personal information.”

One of the leaders of the revolution is Dr. George Church. In 1984, Church developed the first direct genomic sequencing methods, molecular multiplexing tags, and in 1990, he was one of the originators of the Human Genome Project (HGP). Over the next 13 years and at a cost of $3 billion, the HGP successfully mapped the 25,000 genes that make up an individual human genome.

Now Church’s Personal Genome Project (PGP) is seeking the next step--by sequencing and comparing the genomes of thousands of individuals, researchers can learn how individual genes work together to create physical traits like baldness or skin color, as well as how they can interact in complex ways to cause disease. The goal is for individuals to be able to have their own genome sequenced so that they may use this information to understand their risk profiles for disease, their physical and biological characteristics, even their personal ancestry. Consumer testing is already available.

The personal genomics revolution is not without controversy. The PGP is also creating test cases for the legal and ethical issues surrounding the availability of personal and genomic records. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which prohibits U.S. insurance companies and employers from discriminating on the basis of information derived from genetic tests.

Church currently serves as the Director of the Lipper Center for Computational Genetics, Director of the Harvard/MIT DOE Genomes-to-Life Center, Director of the Harvard/MIT/WashU NHGRI CEGS, and a Senior Associate of Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Church is also a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and sits on the advisory board of multiple biotech companies, including 23andMe, a consumer DNA testing service.

Church, who built his first computer at age 9 and taught himself three programming languages by 15, was recently named one of the 10 Hottest Nerds by Newsweek. In addition, Church is the recipient of multiple other awards, including the 2008 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer Award and the 2009 American Society for Microbiology Biotechnology Research Award.

Why the tape on his forehead in the photo above? Dr. Church is not only the creator of the Personal Genome Project, he was also cataloged as “Specimen No. 1.”

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