Angelina Jolie is one of the world’s most famous celebrities – but she’s an extraordinary person for an entirely different reason. In May, she had a double mastectomy. Now, she’s certainly not the first woman to have this drastic procedure. Many women, on finding that they have breast cancer, decide it is the only answer.
But Jolie did not have breast cancer. She just thought she might get it. After her mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 56, Jolie was worried that she might suffer the same fate. But what convinced her to have the mastectomy was a test that revealed a defective gene often found in patients with breast cancer.
Now consider this: the cost of genetic tests has been falling rapidly. The cost of sequencing the first human genome in 2003 was $3bn. We have now reached the stage where all 23,000 genes can be sequenced for $1,000. But Jolie is thought to have paid about $4,000 for the test that revealed a defect in her BRCA1 gene.
On the basis of the outcome, Jolie had the operation. So what does this mean for the rest of us? Should we all be having our genomes read, as a way of predicting potential health problems? Should we all be having bits of our body sliced off, just in case they come to harbour a disease? Could the health service, which is used to treating problems after they have arisen, adjust to such a preventative regime?
DNA is our health software code
In Jolie’s story we glimpse the future of medicine. Until now, doctors diagnosed a disease after it became apparent, and then prescribed a drug more in hope than confidence. In fact, many drugs do no good whatsoever, and some do serious harm. We understand little about the true cause of the disease, all the doctor can do is give some therapy that has helped previous patients with similar symptoms and watch what happens. It is highly inefficient, both in terms of health and money.
Today, though, we are able to drill right down to the true cause of disease. DNA is the software code that determines our health. Don’t be fooled into believing that the connection is straightforward. Ignorant commentators like to say “it is all in the DNA” as if that explains everything, but it does not. We are finding that this DNA software can be switched on or off; that it can be affected by external events and that we are the product not of simple DNA code but of a web of interlinked molecular interactions.
It’s all very complicated, but all over the world scientists are starting to unravel the mystery. They are finding those areas of DNA that have a bearing on your physical outcome – just as Jolie’s BRCA1 gene is associated with cancer. They are discovering that disease is not homogenous. It is now accepted that there are numerous different types of cancer, all with slightly different characteristics. It is with this knowledge that drug companies are now inventing diagnostic tests to accurately define diseases and tailored ‘personalised’ medicines that can target them exactly.
The sweeping world of biotechnology
Many experts have said that we live in the ‘Golden Age of Medicine’. For the first time we can read DNA and, no less important, we can use advanced imaging techniques and super-fast computing to analyse this torrent of data. Research and development has become a vital operation to small and big companies around the globe.
Every day advances are being made, but you should not think that biotechnology is all about medicine. In fact, the most widespread commercialisation of biotechnology is in farming. Although genetically modified crops aren’t allowed to be commercially grown in Europe, they are being grown in 30 countries around the world in ever increasing volumes. Crops are engineered to withstand drought, to fend off parasites and to produce more fruit. Animals are also being genetically modified – the ‘Aquadvantage’ salmon is a transgenic creature that combines the taste of the Atlantic salmon with the faster growth of the Chinook salmon.
Biotechnology is increasingly applied in industry too. Bio-fuels use renewable, often plant-derived raw materials. Algae are used to eat spilled oil. Oil-based plastics are slowly being replaced by bio-plastics. In short we are learning how to harness the processes of the natural world and turn them to our advantage.
Biotechnology is all of this, and more. It’s about the living world, about how we can use it, and how we can alter it. We have done so for centuries, but the study of genetics is vastly increasing our understanding. Without doubt some of the most significant technological and commercial advances of the next decade will arise from biotech. That is why I want to devote my time to biotech and am handing over Penny Sleuth and Red Hot Penny Shares to David Thornton. Biotech is fascinating, hugely important and, for investors, a must.
The Nasdaq Biotechnology Index is already up 40% this year and is the best performing sector of 2013. There are certainly some exciting times ahead!