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Promises, Promises

Genetics and then genomics have long promised to tell people what ails them and offer a quick fix, but as David Dobbs writes at Buzzfeed, that's not been the reality.

"After 110 years of genetics, and 15 years after the $3.8 billion Human Genome Project promised fast cures, after more billions spent and endless hype about results just around the corner, we have few cures," Dobbs writes. "And we basically know diddly-squat."

Rather than identifying genes and variants in them that lead to disease, he notes that genomic studies, particularly genome-wide association studies, have more commonly uncovered a number of genes that are linked to a trait, but that explain only a small portion of it. These are what Dobbs dubs MAGOTS, for "Many Assorted Genes of Tiny Significance." For instance, he says, a recent study of schizophrenia has found some 125 genes linked to the condition. This underscores how little researchers actually know, he adds.

But the hype remains, Dobb says, as similar promises for revolutionary changes to medicine are made. Further, he adds that it's becoming big business as companies and hospitals leverage data collected from patients and consumers into products.

As for combating the hype, Dobbs says he turns to a phrase Henry Bryant Bigelow, a founder of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, wrote to his brother who claimed to see a donkey flying by during a hurricane: "Interesting if true."

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