What is genomics?

What is genomics?

One thing that ties us all together is DNA. It’s a complex compound that effectively tells our bodies how to grow and develop. As you may imagine, DNA studies can get rather complex – especially when you consider how much humanity as a species has already evolved!

Medical professionals interested in DNA and how it can affect the way that our bodies work will study widely in the field of genomics. But what exactly is genomics, what different types of study are available, and why is it so important?

Below, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about the basics of genomics and why you may even wish to study it further on your own.

What exactly is genomics?

Genomics is, put simply, gene study. Genomics concerns how our DNA operates; its influence on our bodily growth; behaviors; and how we react to illness, injury, diet, and more.

Crucially, it is the study of the human genome, and how our molecules react to diseases, environmental factors, and healthcare in general.

Genomics isn’t exclusive to humankind, as all living organisms have DNA to some extent. Those studying genomes in line with human healthcare will consider how genes function and how medicine can help to influence how they operate.

Why is genomics so important?

Genomics is potentially game-changing for global healthcare (and biotech). By closely analyzing how our genes work and react to specific illnesses and treatments, we can better understand how to treat diseases and viruses that evolve at a rapid pace.

For example, the rise of COVID-19 has inspired strands of genomic study to help us understand how viral genomes affect our bodies. It is thanks to genome editing, in fact, that we have been able to produce and use effective vaccines against this strain of coronavirus in such a short timeframe.

In the case of COVID-19, genomics is helping us to understand the dynamics of viral outbreak. It has also helped us to ascertain where the coronavirus may have come from and which ‘causative agents’ may have triggered the spread in the first place.

Genomics is also helping us to design new treatments and refine vaccines in the face of the continued spread of disease and attempted containment. With COVID-19, genomics has proven useful in helping healthcare providers design medicine to combat evolving viral factors.

Genomics is vital in the post-lockdown age as COVID-19 continues to evolve. While the Omicron variant is, at the time of writing, the dominant strain of coronavirus in the West, it continues to produce sub-variants, requiring additional study and research.

Of course, genomics goes beyond the study and treatment of COVID-19. It’s one of many different strands of biological study that’s helping us to understand the world around us a little clearer.

Ultimately, for all we understand about our bodies and how to treat them for the better, there is still so much that we don’t understand! Genomics is forever evolving and pushing us forward to unlocking the secrets of our DNA and how we can use these answers to improve healthcare standards worldwide.

Let’s consider a few different genomics applications ongoing right now, and why they’re so important for humanity’s progress moving forward.

Genomics in cancer

Cancers are genetic diseases that wreak havoc across our bodies. Specifically, they trigger mass over-production of cells, which can lead to genome mutation.

Cancers occur when our cell defenses fail to account for a mutation, leading to life-threatening illness. As many as 50% of people will develop cancer during their life – making it vital for researchers to continue searching for treatments.

Many cancers are treatable when caught early. However, treatments are intensive and exhausting for patients. Thankfully, genome editing can help treat specific mutations that could produce widespread cancer if left to develop.

Genome sequencing allows scientists to find mutations in genes where drugs can be put into development to ‘fix faults’. In some cases, genomics can reveal that existing medicine or treatments (which may even be used for other illnesses or conditions) can help to reduce cancerous cells.

Genome sequencing is highly complex and is a procedure that requires incredible time and money investment. However, there are thousands of ongoing clinical trials into cancer therapies helping to dig deep into how our genes mutate.

These trials require support from cancer patients in some cases – those who are willing to share their cell data in the hope of finding new ways to combat mutations in time. By sharing their genomic data, cancer patients can help us get one step closer to eradicating cancer for good.

Genomics in home testing

A boom in home genetics testing over the years has led many people to learn more about their bodily make-up. With some DNA testing services, home users can find out if they have any hereditary conditions or dispositions, for example, that they need to be aware of.

Popular services such as 23andMe can help people learn more about their inner genomics. These tests, and those like it, can help people understand their ancestry and propensity to develop conditions in exceptional detail.

Direct-to-consumer genomic testing can help people to find treatments for conditions they may not have previously been aware of. However, some people may prefer to trust genomic testing through a doctor or physician.

Genomics in prenatal testing

Genomic study in pregnant women can help us to understand the risks of unborn babies carrying genetic conditions and diseases before birth. Efficient genetic testing has come a long way in the past decade, allowing medical professionals to check for conditions such as Down’s syndrome at minimal risk to the mother.

Prenatal genomics can give parents peace of mind, or can at least prepare them for treatments that may become necessary in the years to come.

Genomics in medicinal prescription

Finding the right medicines to treat conditions – regardless of severity – can be complicated from case to case. While trained doctors and nurses can find treatment courses to help patients recover with some confidence, genomics is helping to improve the accuracy of these choices.

This strand of the study is known as pharmacogenomics. This operation helps us better understand how medicines work, how our bodies may react to specific treatments, and the introduction of external medicine into our bodies.

Understanding medicine’s effects on our bodies can also help doctors and medical professionals better ascertain which dosages work best in specific circumstances. Ultimately, this genomics strand helps us fine-tune drug courses and treatments for individual purposes.

Pharmacogenomics can also help to prevent the rise of side effects in patients who take specific medicines. By studying gene sequencing, we can clearly understand variants in individual DNA that may produce unwanted effects when receiving treatment.

Wider pharmacogenomics can help us understand the more complex relationships between our bodies’ cells, the medicines we receive, and mutations that may arise individually. Ultimately, this study area can help us fine-tune medication and prescription to help avoid unnecessary illness.

Genomics in human study

Crucially, genomics is at the forefront of analyzing key differences and similarities between people worldwide. While we can make some assumptions regarding specific types of people, advances in genetic sequencing show that we are perhaps more different (at a deeper level) than many of us had initially realized.

Individual differences in genetics can dictate our height, our eye color, and even our metabolisms. Genetic sequencing can help us understand why there is so much variation in skin color, hair color, and even the propensity to suffer from specific diseases and conditions.

Genomics, to this extent, is helping researchers understand why people develop hereditary conditions and why some demographics are more at risk from certain side effects and conditions than others. Genomics is helping us to appreciate diversity and individuality on a global scale.

Genomics and ongoing operation

The human genome is said to contain around 20,000 genes – perhaps more than many researchers may have expected at the outset. However, the genome is a crucial series of roadmaps that allows us to understand how cells grow, develop and function.

The human genome helps to ensure that cells develop and find their place in the body where they are most required. The vast genetic maps we all carry determine our propensities for specific conditions and how at risk we may be as we grow older.

Interestingly, genomics also demonstrates that external sources can also impact our genome. For example, many viruses you contract, while eventually expiring (leading to you feeling better), can leave genetic code behind that the body adopts. Specifically, we refer to DNA from ancient viruses across thousands of years of evolution!

We don’t quite understand why so much ancient DNA remains in our bodies now. However, genomics is helping us to break all of this down so that we can refine medicine and care for the centuries to come.

Genomics and rare disease

One of the most important applications of genomics in modern medicine is researching conditions and diseases that might otherwise go beyond our attention. Millions of people worldwide suffer from diseases and conditions that are considered ‘rare’ – and that develop as a result of genetic code.

Genomics is helping researchers develop new plans of action for people who suffer from rare genetic conditions for which there may be no current cure. Nurses can still apply extensive medical care through practice they’ve learned on an accelerated BSN program online, such as via Elmhurst University, and our understanding of how to eradicate these rare conditions for good is only growing.

This means that medical professionals will, in years to come, be in an even better position to treat and cure genetic problems that otherwise prove to be mysteries.

Genomics and social culture

While genomics carries a raft of benefits both in terms of healthcare and how we understand our inner workings, it’s creating complex conversations worldwide. How can we expect to apply privacy when it comes to our genes and ‘inner workings’?

Do we have individual rights to deny knowledge of genetic test results? Will the rules of consent over genetic testing (and further research) change as editing and sequencing techniques continue to evolve?

Gene editing has brought concerns over whether we should be ‘tampering’ with our DNA, and whether it’s entirely within our rights to do so. The counter-argument to this, of course, is that genomics is provably helping people get better, and it’s helping us to produce more effective, efficient medication for those who desperately need it.

It is safe to say that debate over gene editing (such as via CRISPR) and even sequencing and study will continue for years to come. However, gene study continues to provide fascinating insights into how our bodies grow and develop. Thus, many believe that we should use this information to our advantage.

Genomics and forensic study

Beyond healthcare, genomics is proving immensely beneficial in forensic study and analysis. This means that we can now study genes to help us identify DNA samples across an array of different cases.

For example, researchers can already apply genomics to cases where people have gone missing. Family members may contribute samples of their own DNA to help trace long-lost sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, or otherwise.

We can also use DNA to help ascertain and prove probable guilt in crimes (much as you may have seen on TV and in film). Genomics is also useful in helping us make firmer predictions about what our ancestors may have looked like, and can even be used to create artwork and installations.

Effectively, genomics can help us to understand periods of history (and human development) that we might otherwise not have been physically able to access or witness for ourselves.

Why genomics is so important

Although there are controversies surrounding genomics (specifically regarding editing), it’s hard to deny that the study has helped us evolve further as a society. While health and fitness trends will come and go, genetic clues may help us find firm answers to ongoing problems for good.

Genomics is helping us to break down genetic puzzles that would otherwise be impossible to understand. We’re getting progressively closer to understanding how to treat and eradicate cancers. Genomics is also proving crucial in helping us to treat rare genetic disorders, and to find new ways to treat people who may not react positively to established drug courses.

Genomics also helps us to appreciate the role that ancestry has to play in the way that our bodies react to lifestyle choices and environments. This means that we can more easily prepare for specific conditions later in life and avoid periods of sickness (or even fatality altogether).

Beyond healthcare, genomics is highly useful in helping to resolve criminal cases. It’s also used to help trace missing people and even to help us take glimpses at our distant past. For these reasons alone, it’s inarguably helping to further our society outside of medicine.

Genomics, however, is complex and has no theoretical ending point. Researchers are still at the start of their journeys into understanding the larger role that DNA will play in our society and global health moving forward.

That’s why it is still so crucial for traditional healthcare methodology to still evolve. We are perhaps decades (maybe even centuries) away from genomics becoming the dominant force in medical research and treatment en masse.

For now, it’s helping us to research better and treat people where traditional (modern) medicine may slip up. There are growing concerns over antibiotic resistance, for example, where gene sequencing may help to fill in a few gaps.

Beyond this, skilled doctors and nurses are still hugely relied upon to administer care and make confident healthcare choices. Without them, genomics and associated treatments will only go so far.

Is genomics the future of healthcare?

We can’t entirely rely on genomics to solve all our healthcare woes just yet. Research shows that studies into gene sequences are extremely exciting, and there’s the promise of more efficient, effective medicine emerging in our lifetimes.

However, there will always be a need for traditional healthcare and physical support from trained nurses and specialists. While artificial intelligence and automated processes are advancing in various industries at a rapid pace, human care will be a high priority for the populace for many years to come.

Genomics will likely produce fascinating study results in the next few years. It’s entirely possible that through sequencing and editing, we may be able to finally beat cancer for good – a problem that even now seems highly improbable.

Genomics helps us understand where we’ve come from, how we react to the world around us, and where we are ultimately heading. Without it, many lives could be at risk, and beyond that, we may spend time and money on trial-and-error procedures that get us nowhere fast.

What’s next for genomics? No one is sure – but it’s an area of study that’s likely to get all the more exciting over the next decade plus.