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Andrea Frank
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Eric S.Lander
Professor of Biology, MIT; Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Founding Director of Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

What are you working on?

We’re working on understanding the information in the human genome and we’re figuring out how to apply that information to medicine. We have an amazing trove that has been piling up for three and a half billion years, and it contains so much information about things like the cellular basis of cancer, the genetic risks for diabetes, the history of the human population, human similarities and differences, mechanisms of evolution, and the way genes behave. The genome is a text that our generation is fi rst to have read. And it’s not
just a generic human text. We have texts from each individual. We also have text from chimpanzees, dogs, mice, and fish––to name a few.

In some sense, almost all of the potential solutions to medical problems come down to comparing two versions of the text. So much can be learned from the evolutionary processes that gave rise to these texts. We can look at the process of speciation, because different parts of the genome experience different histories. We can look at mechanisms of mutation by comparing human to chimp. We can look at the genetic
differences that cause diabetes or Alzheimer’s by studying collections of patients with the disease and without. We can discover the genetic causes of cancer by comparing the version of the text in a lung tumor versus in normal tissue. We can study the action of drugs by comparing the differences between lung tumors that respond to a drug and those that don’t. If you choose your comparison sensibly, and you ask what aspects of the text are the same in one group and different in another, you can learn a tremendous amount about mechanisms, and a lot about disease.

What we’ve got, for the first time, is a generic approach to asking questions. In the past in biology, you had to know so much in advance about a topic in order to ask relevant questions. Now, in a sense, you don’t have to know so much. You can ask hundreds or thousands of questions. It means that the barrier to investigate
any aspect of human medicine has become lower. Now, MIT graduate students, or undergraduates, are able to investigate these questions. In that sense, this technology is throwing the doors open for a generation to take on problems more effectively.

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for full text see VISIONS - MIT Interviews book

Andrea Frank