Most of the major health-related problems facing society today have a considerable genetic component – this is true of everything ranging from cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer to mental health and substance misuse. But, how genes influence these outcomes is very different than the simple genetics that most of us were taught in high school biology. Instead of there being just one gene involved, whether or not you have a particular version of that gene determines whether or not you get the disorder (or have the trait of interest, such as blue versus brown eyes), there are many genes involved in these outcomes – perhaps hundreds or more!
So, any one gene on its own has a very small effect. This means there is no gene FOR a particular outcome; rather, there are just combinations of genes that can increase or decrease your level of risk for a particular outcome. And, having a particular genetic combination still does not necessarily mean that you will be affected by a disorder. The environment also plays a big role. For example, an individual might be strongly predisposed, based on their underlying biology, to become addicted to alcohol, but, if for religious or personal reasons they choose not to drink, they will never develop alcohol-related problems. The environment has essentially "trumped" their genetic predisposition; the individual's genetic predisposition is less important because of their environment. The converse is also true. The importance of environmental risk factors can also vary as a function of one's individual susceptibility. That is to say, some people may be more likely to develop lung cancer when exposed to nicotine or to develop depression when exposed to stressful life experiences. This is why we need to study both genetic and environmental risk factors in order to develop maximally effective prevention and intervention programming.
Genetics is a high priority area for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The idea is that differences in genes have the potential to change the way that medicine is practiced – moving from the current treatment model (where you go see a doctor when something is wrong) to a predictive, preemptive, and personalized approach in which prevention, intervention, and treatment efforts can be tailored to an individual's personal risk profile. Understanding genetics promises to be a critical skill for understanding the future of medicine. We want VCU students to be armed to understand these advances and to engage in dialogue about the new era of genetics and the potential and challenges for personalized medicine.
Click here to learn more about the importance of racial and ethnic minority involvement in genetic research.