SANTA CLARA, Calif., Feb. 28 - Maynard Olson wants to put the "H" back into the National Institutes of Health.
"The NIH thinks all too much of its mission is studying disease, not health," Olson, who directs the University of Washington Genome Center, said following a presentation here at the 2002 Genome Tri-Conference. "There may be entire new human genetics to be discovered" with healthy people.
Illustrating his point, the researcher points to family-based linkage studies--what he calls the "old fashioned approach."
"It's a natural time to step back and ask if there are other opportunities which might have greater impact," said Olson. "I think there's a whole new area of human genetics out there. We just have to find the right research subjects.
"There's lots of mutant individuals in the population whose mutations don't make them sick but confer an advantage in modern life," he went on. For example, "maybe we should be scouring the world for people who are under-responsive, calm, and cool [in the face of stimuli] as opposed to those who have panic attacks."
The hard part, Olson said, is not the science but the recruitment. In addition to the particularly cumbersome thicket of ethical and legal issues that surrounds genetic studies on healthy people, there is a bias against moving in that direction, he said.
The science "doesn't pose unusual challenges for genomic researchers," said Olson. Rather, the unusual challenge is posed "for people acquiring research subjects. It requires a real reorientation of thinking at the NIH and in industry and public education, a willingness of people to enroll as such subjects."
To be sure, Olson is proud about the genomic headway made in the past few years. "It's been a decade of spectacular progress," he said. "But if you look at what's happening now, one thing is to study exceedingly rare genetic disorders, to scour the world looking for these Mendelian disorders. I don't see that that's been highly predictive. It's driven because we know how to do it."
Then there's the challenge of looking at more common, but often complex, diseases carries. "I'm not optimistic that will have a lot of success there," he said, referring to diseases in which inheritance is not Mendelian. "Humans are complicated, there's a lot of ways of breaking them."
As far as studying healthy people, Olson said he thinks "it would be natural for the NIH to take the lead just as they did with the Human Genome Project. I [also] think there is a business opportunity here in acquiring patients. Genomic researchers would know exactly what to do with these patients. The problem is in identifying them."