MEDIA CULTURE AND THE ARTS: Media Watch - With human genome published, drug cures expected

Earlier this month, Science and Nature magazines published the complete human genome, as respectively mapped by Celera Genomics of the private sector and the Human Genome Project, a nonprofit multinational effort.

Earlier this month, Science and Nature magazines published the complete human genome, as respectively mapped by Celera Genomics of the private sector and the Human Genome Project, a nonprofit multinational effort.

Earlier this month, Science and Nature magazines published the complete human genome, as respectively mapped by Celera Genomics of the private sector and the Human Genome Project, a nonprofit multinational effort.

Although the mapping was completed last June, this marked the first time that the publication of the mapping was made available.

To give an indication of the event's magnitude, coverage reminded the public that when the mapping was completed, then-President Clinton described it as 'the language in which God created life' (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 13).

Media coverage most often focused on hopes that the publication of the human genome would allow scientists everywhere to use the information to develop drugs to help cure various diseases associated with defective genes. There were reports that suggested manufacturers could use this genetic map to develop drugs that would cure cardiovascular disease, diabetes, various cancers, Alzheimer's disease, as well as manic depression and schizophrenia. However, despite the mood of optimism, there was an acknowledgement that even with the map of the human genome, miracle drugs won't be appearing any time soon.

Media coverage also treated the publication of the human genome as nothing short of an historic moment. Newsday (February 13) quoted Dr. Richard McCombie of the Human Genome Project, who said, 'It is a tool that will provide a level of understanding of ourselves that is totally unprecedented in history. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the next few years.'

Judging by the media coverage on the subject, ethical and legal concerns that such genetic information could be misused took a back seat to the optimism of the moment. Even so, there were a number of reports that raised the question of how far researchers should go in using knowledge of genetics. The Detroit News (February 13) wrote, 'The advances in human genetics could open an abortion-like debate as our society grapples with issues of right and wrong when it comes to scientific manipulation of human life.' A few articles pointed out that the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had recently filed its first-ever suit for genetic discrimination of employees.

A number of articles addressed the findings in detail. One of the most surprising discoveries revealed that the total number of genes in the human genome only numbered 30,000 - well below the 100,000 nearly everyone expected. Where coverage differed was on the significance of this new finding. There were more reports that suggested that the lower number of genes would actually make it more difficult to isolate the cures for miracle drugs. With fewer genes, the theory that one gene was responsible for one trait was thrown out the window. Coverage indicated that the interaction of genes will need to be researched further.

Only a handful of articles highlighted the differences in the numbers and methodology used by the two groups in an attempt to cast doubt on one or another research team.

While the publication of the human genome map is a defining moment, reports point out that the successful interpretation of that map will be the key to providing the new miracle drugs.



Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.



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