Impact of Genomics on Insurers - Part 1
Advances in genomics over the few last years have been astonishing, in terms of both genome analysis and gene manipulation and therapy. These developments look set to impact more or less the entire health and life insurance value chain in the years to come. This series of articles will discuss the implications from various perspectives.
In the first part of the series we introduce some basic principles to lay the foundation for our discussions of biology and technological advances in the upcoming articles.
Our species is characterized by a set of information that specifies the make-up and functioning of our bodies: the human genome. Every cell of our body contains a copy of this information, which is encoded in four-letter codes on long, filament-like DNA molecules (see Fig. 1).
Genes Encode Proteins
Specific sections of these DNA molecules act as blueprints for the molecular structure of protein molecules. These, in turn, serve as the structural and functional building blocks of our body (see Fig. 2). For example: the protein hemoglobin in our blood transports oxygen from our lungs through our body; keratin gives structure to our skin, hair, and nails; antibodies recognize intruders in our body and trigger immune responses.
The production of a protein from this genetic blueprint is called gene expression. DNA sections between genes do not produce proteins themselves, but it would be a mistake to simply ignore them. In many cases, they play an important role in regulating the rate of gene expression and thus how much of a certain protein is produced.
Genetic Variations Result in Different Physical Traits
Although we share the largest part of our genetic information as a species, subtle differences between our individual genomes lead to differences in protein structures or quantities (see Fig. 3), which in turn result in our different physical traits. These include, for example, the color of our eyes, the shape of our earlobes, or – perhaps more importantly – predispositions toward certain diseases such as cardiovascular weaknesses, neurodegenerative illnesses, or diabetes.
Everyone possesses a different combination of genetic variations, resulting in a unique genetic profile. During reproduction, each parent transmits one half of their genetic information to their child, creating a new, unique genetic mix.
Genetics and Genomics
The terms genetics and genomics sound similar, and although often used interchangeably, there are still some differences to consider. Genetic research, which began in the 19th century, revolves around the inheritance of traits from one generation to the next, and focuses on specific and limited numbers of genes that have a known function. Genomics, on the other hand, studies the whole genome of an organism; research in this space is only a few decades old. Human genomic research involves searching through large amounts of DNA sequence data (3 billion of the four-letter code units mentioned above) to identify genetic variations and their impact on health and disease.
Owing to the large number of known human genes (roughly 23,000) and the highly diverse effects that each combination of genetic variations can have on our physiological systems, genomics is considered a complex science, constantly updated with new findings and riven with uncertainty and polemics regarding their implications. Despite this, genomic research is progressing in the most positive way: genetic and genomic data are regularly used for medical purposes, ranging from single-gene diagnostics to personalized medicine, and even gene therapy.
The Impact of Advances in Genomic Testing and Sequencing
Rapid developments in DNA sequencing technology have led to massive reductions in the cost and effort involved in sequencing the genome of an individual person, resulting in an exponential increase in the number of sequences available for study. In parallel, genetic testing has moved from academic laboratories to the public, thanks particularly to the arrival of quick and affordable direct-to-consumer testing services.
These developments are bound to have an impact not only on the medical field, but also on all connected industries, including health and life insurance. In this series of articles, we aim to describe the current status of genomics and discuss its potential impact on the insurance sector.
In the next article in this series we will concentrate on the different types of genetic testing and their implications.