Genetic “atlas” of cells will pinpoint causes of disease, improve drug treatments news

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Scientists at the University of Toronto have discovered a way to map the interactions of genes within a cell, that could lead to more precise targeting of drug treatments. By Chris Garbutt, faculty of medicine, University of Toronto

Scientists at the University of Toronto have discovered a way to map the interactions of genes within a cell, a significant breakthrough that promises to help researchers better understand the causes of disease, and lead to more precise targeting of drug treatments.

While the genetic makeup of humans has been determined, the purpose and interactions of those genes have not been well-understood. An international study led by Brenda Andrews, director of the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, and Charles Boone, a principal investigator at the Donnelly Centre, found a way to decipher the networks derived from natural genetic variation. The results of the study were published in today’s issue of the prestigious journal Science.

“No one has made a map of these genetic interactions,” says Professor Andrews. “This research has provided us with a functional view of the cell.”

Working with cells from simple yeasts, the researchers developed a method to map the interactions within these cells, the first time this has been done for any organism. Because yeast cells are remarkably similar genetically to human cells, this mapping process has important implications for improving research into human health, such as better understanding the genetic basis of disease.

The mapping process will enable scientists to develop a complete atlas of genetic interactions, thereby making it possible to decode the functions of all of the thousands of genes in a cell. Such an atlas will provide valuable information about the link between an individual’s genotype (a person’s unique genetic makeup) and phenotype (the behaviours of that individual’s genes). This information will build understanding of what genetic interactions are going wrong when a disease happens in a body.

The  University of Toronto researchers were also able to map interactions between genes and chemicals, which allows researchers to see more precisely what happens to a cell when a particular drug is introduced.

“These types of maps will allow us to be much smarter in the use of drugs in the future,” says Professor Andrews. “By knowing the interactions of genes, we will be able to better predict the effect of a drug on a cell.”

The study was conducted in collaboration with Chad Myers, an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, and other researchers from  University of Toronto , Harvard University, the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, McGill University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of California Santa Cruz, University of Szeged (Hungary), Mount Sinai Hospital (Toronto), and S&P Robotics Inc. (Toronto).

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