Impact of Genomics on Insurers - Part 1
Advancements in genomics over the few last years have been astonishing, both regarding genome analysis as well as gene manipulation and therapy. We can well assume that the health and life insurance industries will be significantly impacted along most of their whole value chain in the years to come. This article series will discuss the implications from various perspectives.
In the first part of our article series, we introduce some basic principles to lay the foundation for our discussions regarding 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 on these DNA molecules act as blueprints for the molecular structure of protein molecules. These, in turn, serve as 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 serve an important role in regulating the rate of gene expression and hence 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 towards 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 still are some differences to consider. Genetic research began in the 19th century and 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 and 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.
Due 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, characterized by a constant update of new results, along with uncertainties and polemics regarding their implications. That being stated, 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 price and effort necessary to sequence 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, particularly due 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, such as the health and life insurance sectors. 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 of this series, we will concentrate on the different types of genetic testing and their implications.
- Dr. Dominik Langer
- Ingo Muschick
- Charlotte Meylan