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The future of medicine is in your genes

Dalhousie professors from the school of medicine are looking to genetics as a way to find new treatments for disease.

On Jan. 17, several professors participated in a panel discussion at the Halifax Central Library.  They were joined by Andrew Burke, a lawyer at Stewart McKelvey law firm and chair of the Foundation for Fighting Blindness, as well as Senator James Cowan of Halifax.

The event was a keynote speech from Dr. Steven J. M. Jones, co-director and head of Bioinfomatics, Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre and the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

Following the speech was a panel consisting of Dalhousie professors (Dr. Langille, Dr. Fernandez, Dr. Van Limbergen, Dr. MacMaster), Dr. Jones, Burke and Senator Cowan.

Dr. Christopher McMaster, head of pharmacology at Dalhousie, said “the capacity to look at the genes that make you who you are, has gotten to the point where it’s incredibly affordable… For some diseases, I can already predict what you’re going to get in the future.”

The event also highlighted Dr. Jonah Van Limbergen’s work on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and how he has used intestinal stem cell structures to better understand the role that these micro products play in humans intestinal biology.

Senator Cowan supported a bill in the Senate that directly related to the panel’s topic: the bill would protect Canadians from genetic discrimination.

This protection would mean that when a Canadian applies for health insurance or a job and is asked to do a genetic test, they could not be denied that job or insurance if their DNA said that they are at a higher risk of acquiring a disease, such as heart disease.

If passed, this bill would prohibit all companies – be them employers or insurers –from carrying out any form of genetic discrimination.

MacMaster says doctors can now perform this gene-based “precision medicine” much more “reasonably, affordably, much more quickly, and more accurately.”

“We’re still at the research meets the clinic stage, but give it a decade or two decades, and it will be much more of a normal process you see in hospitals.”

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