Launch of The Oxford Genetics Knowledge Park by Matt Ridley

The Oxford Genetics Knowledge Park was launched this month at an event at the University Museum of Natural History with a talk by well-known science writer Matt Ridley.

The Oxford Genetics Knowledge Park is a partnership between Oxford University and the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, and is one of six such Parks nationally, funded by the Departments of Health and Trade and Industry. The aim of the Genetics Knowledge Parks (GKPs) is to translate advances in genetics research into clinical practice.

Matt Ridley, author of Nature Via Nurture (2003), Genome (1999), The Origins of Virtue (1996) and The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993), spoke on 'How Nature Turns On Nurture' – a deliberate pun expressing the two-way interaction between genes and environmental influences. He asserted that the old nature versus nurture dichotomy is flawed, and that genes both set up our brains to learn from nurture, and can themselves be switched on and off by external factors.

Matt discussed a gene on the X chromosome which appears to increase vulnerability to environmental experiences: those with a particular form of the gene are much more likely to suffer depression following a stressful life event, but without that external trigger may never suffer from depression. The gene does not determine their fate – it is not a 'gene for depression' – but it sets up a tendency to react in a certain way to what the environment brings.

Environmental forces can also change how genes behave, said Matt: stressful situations such as upcoming exams trigger the stress hormone cortisol, which appears to 'switch off' a gene crucial to the functioning of the immune system, leading often to the familiar post-exam cold.

Dr Jenny Taylor also gave a talk, explaining the Oxford GKP's focus on cardiovascular disease (including sudden cardiac death and coronary artery disease) and cancer, and the ways in which knowing more about nature, an individual's genes, can lead to treatments that centre on nurture, such as altering an individual's diet. Knowledge about an individual's genetic propensity for certain diseases could lead to pre-emptive non-genetic actions such as changing someone's diet or fitting a pacemaker, and the Oxford GKP programme will evaluate how far genetic testing would help in the diagnosis or treatment of patients with cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Researchers will also examine the ethical, legal, social and economic implications of conducting such tests. Whilst identifying individuals at risk of, for example, sudden cardiac arrest could save many lives, the existence of that genetic information raises questions about insurance and job security which need to be carefully considered. The conclusions will allow them to make recommendations to Government about whether genetic tests for these conditions are clinically worthwhile, technically feasible, and acceptable to the general public.

For more information the Genetics Knowledge Park, go to the Oxford GKP website. http://www.oxfordgkp.org/

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