In an effort to help move science forward, award-winning actress and mental health advocate Glenn Close recently had her genome mapped.
Close, who has a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in her family and who just last year helped launch the nonprofit mental health organization Bring Change 2 Mind, has a personal investment in such scientific advancement that goes beyond just an interest in mental health.
“For me, anything that can move the science forward is worthwhile,” Close said in a telephone interview. “It’s pretty well publicized that I have mental health issues in my family.”
Now, that’s all well and good, but if you’re anything like me, you might know a genome is something related to genetics and that there are probably words like “DNA” and “chromosomes” in there somewhere, but, until this point your brain has been content leaving the details of genomes — and how and why they’re mapped — to the scientists.
What exactly is genome mapping, and how can Close’s involvement help?
Very simply put, a genome map helps scientists navigate around the genome, which is a living thing’s genetic material. The Genome News Network likens genome maps to “road maps and other familiar maps”:
[…] a genome map is a set of landmarks that tells people where they are, and helps them get where they want to go.
Of course, Googling the definition is one thing; being able to talk with an expert is quite another. So, to gain even more insight, I talked with my friend Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei, a PhD-trained genetic epidemiologist who co-founded The DNA Network and currently works as a media consultant for the Human Genome Organisation (HUGO), who really helped put Close’s involvement — and the current state of genome mapping — in perspective:
First, it’s exciting to have a celebrity of her caliber show interest in an emerging science like genomics. We are getting closer to the day when every one of us will have some data on our personal genomes and it’s important to understand how we can put such information to good use to improve our health and overall quality of life.
And that brings us to the second important point about genetic information. We are not at the point yet where we can fully utilize the vast amounts of data generated from a complete genome sequence. There are some diseases, like Huntington’s disease or breast and ovarian cancer, for which one or a few specific genes are known to significantly increase a person’s risk but for complex diseases like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, there are many genes that each have a minimal effect individually but have a larger effect cumulatively. Until we can sequence more genomes from people in the general population (which the Personal Genome Project is attempting to gather), we won’t be able to fully understand the part that genes play in the etiology of disease.
Thirdly, genes alone are not what make us tick. Our health is also influenced by environmental exposures and lifestyle choices. So while genetic information is critical for developing personalized medicine and understanding disease mechanisms, we also need to understand how our genetic make-up interacts with non-genetic influences in our lives.
So it seems that, like every scientific advancement at some point, the journey of genome mapping is far from complete but shows incredible promise – especially with more help and involvement like what Close has provided.
Close will find out her results when she meets with a genetics counselor next month, and the actress says she will consider making public anything that turns out to be of scientific interest.
In the meantime, if you were given the opportunity and had the money to do so (although it’s predicted the process could cost around $1,000 in the next five years, Illumina, the company that mapped Close’s genome, currently charges $48,000), would you have your genome mapped?
Image Source: Wikipedia