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Complex Genetic Diseases and Genome Research

The genetics of complex diseases with widespread prevalence, such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases, to a great extent still remains a puzzle which scientists and medical doctors hope to better understand by looking deeper into the human genome. Genome research will Iikely also result in the development of new diagnostic tools and treatments. This view has been expressed by scientists at a press conference (on Thursday, September 28) at a meeting on Complex Genetic Diseases at the MAX DELBRÜCK CENTER FOR MOLECULAR MEDICINE (MDC) BERLIN-BUCH), a young national research laboratory in the new länder. They also expressed their hope that the initiative of the research secretary Jürgen Rüttgers in Bonn, who set up a German genome project last summer, will stimulate research that has long been neglected in this country.

Prof. Harald zur Hausen, Director of the Deutsche Krebsforschungszentrum (DKFZ, German Cancer Research Centre) in Heidelberg and a virologist, said "no doubt, investigations regarding the genome will certainly provide the basis for research on complex genetic diseases." "Even though, the pathogenesis of complex genetic diseases is not elucidated by just looking at the sequences of the hereditary material DNA, the knowledge about genes is the basis to understand how they are regulated. Complex genetic diseases are often the result of disturbances in regulation at the DNA level and, thereby, genome research can contribute tremendously to the understanding of those diseases."

Prof. Detlev Ganten, director of the MDC, said "clinical research can only be improved if modern tools such as molecular biology and genetic engineering are applied." He pointed out that the plan to set up resource centres within this German genome programme, as well as planned collaborations between various biomedical research institutions such as the DKFZ, the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin and the MDC, will also contribute to the improvement of c1inical research. "The challenge in biomedical science in the future will be to understand complex genetic diseases, such as cancer or cardiovascular diseases, which are caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors." According to Prof. Ganten, developed methods to investigate hypertension can be applied to the study of complex genetic diseases in animal models. However, some forms of hypertension are caused by a single gene defect."

Prof. Jens Reich, head of medical genetics at the MDC, said "without genome research, we will not be able to make progress in diagnosis, therapy and prevention of complex genetic diseases. He pointed out that some success has already been achieved in the diagnosis of diseases that are caused by a single gene mutation, such as cystic fibrosis, or Duchenne muscular dystrophy and others.

The Austrian chemist, Dr. Hans Lehrach (Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Berlin), is convinced that "the genome project in Germany will be unique as it is not only focusing on DNA sequencing and gene mapping, but also on analysing the function of genes". Within the German genome initiative he will set up a resource center at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin: It will be an expanded version of the reference library system he, and a colleague, have set up years ago when they worked at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London. Lehrach has also developed special robots to automate the detection of specific pieces of DNA on special filters by using other pieces of DNA to pick the relevant pieces out of this pool.

Zur Hausen and Lehrach are convinced that the genome project in Germany will not repeat the work that has already been accomplished in genome projects in the USA, Japan and France. Lehrach believes this is impossible and zur Hausen thinks this is a relatively small risk. "If we - as other groups plan - focus on specific areas of DNA and also, only look at specific disease genes - we could contribute substantially to the international genome project" zur Hausen stressed. He pointed out that the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg will focus on genes that are ' relevant to the development of cancer, especially genes that play an important role in controlling viral infections."

Dr. Jean Weissenbach, scientific director of the French private research institute, Genethon near Paris, has already mapped over 75 per cent of the human genome. He has used special markers. With this map, disease genes can be detected more easily and, thus, more quickly.

The Federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research" and Technology in Bonn has set up an initiative for a genome project in Germany which is scheduled to last for eight years. It will be funded with a total of 200 million German Mark until 1999. In 1990, the USA started a Human Genome Project which is funded with 3.5 billion dollars to sequence all three billion bases of DNA.

The two day symposium, in the northeast of Berlin, was attended by more than 200 scientists and medical doctors from various European countries and the USA.

Press and Public Affairs
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch
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