Every month, one member of the TGMI team will tell us why they are so committed to the vision of the TGMI, and share a bit more about their work and interests. This week we hear from Anthony Renwick, Senior Scientific Officer in the Genetic Susceptibility Team at the Institute of Cancer Research.
What has been the main focus of your work to date?
Having started out in a Biochemistry research group studying enzyme induction and inhibition, I moved into genomics and genetics when I started at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in 2003. Since that time, the principal ambition of the Genetic Susceptibility Team has been to reveal which genes are responsible for familial predisposition to cancer. My contributions have focussed on the inheritance of gene variants that increase a family’s likelihood of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. Many hours have been spent in the lab, running a variety of processes to generate enormous quantities of DNA sequence data. Amongst many millions of DNA bases we occasionally find a crucial alteration.
What are you most excited about in genetic medicine?Having spent 14 years helping to generate DNA sequence data that can bring direct benefit to patients and their families in genetics clinics, it seems remarkable to me that during the same period such a therapeutic revolution has been born and has really started to have a major impact on people’s lives. Where our results were reported to inform a family about risk, screening and intervention, the same type of information can start to provide therapy and recovery. To a great extent it has been enabled by enormous advances in laboratory technology. Without Next Generation Sequencing, genetic medicine wouldn’t be viable. It seems that clinical and research efforts are coming together more than ever and will increasingly do so.
What are you most concerned about in genetic medicine?
In a word, cost. Great endeavour that brings great breakthroughs will come to nothing if something doesn’t change soon. I’m no expert in the field of healthcare provision, but we are all well aware of the financial crisis that is brewing in our NHS, for example. All branches of healthcare are vital, so to put it simply, can we be surprised if NICE have no choice but to reject a new therapy on the basis that the current system can’t afford to fund drug discovery? It’s an enormous concern that these amazing new treatments may only find their way to a fortunate few, whatever part of the world a patient may live in.
Why did you get involved in the TGMI?
As a member of the ICR Genetic Susceptibility Team, it was really just a natural progression. I’ve spent much time utilising the online genomics databases during my years of gene sequence analysis. I hope that my familiarity with the various nuances presented by gene sequences and their variants may be of help in the development of the TGMI’s aims. Knowing what to look for amongst the complex detail and having an idea where the potential pitfalls and ambiguities lie keeps everyone working in genomics and genetics alert and busy.
What is the most important thing that you would like the TGMI to achieve?The genome is an enormous, complex phenomenon and its analysis and utility are now enormously varied. Consistency is key to communication amongst so much detail, but it’s so hard to achieve in this line of work. The problem isn’t that we are drowning in a flood of misinformation, we’re not. We’re grappling with complexity that lies within the inherent variability of the genome; so many genes, so many sequences and mountains of variable data. If the TGMI can help in providing a go-to resource for reference standards, miscommunication can be better avoided.
If you had a magic wand (i.e. unlimited people/resources) what would you do to make genetic medicine work?
To be honest, it’s hard to see past the answer I suggested above, or to see ahead of the extraordinary speed of recent progress. Now I wish I’d paid more attention to the Harry Potter franchise.
Do you have a favourite gene? If so – what and why?
From my laboratory-skewed perspective, PALB2 was a turning point for our team. Years had been spent screening DNA samples for gene variants using considerable amounts of fairly high-energy radioisotope. The old system worked well, was fairly sensitive and reliable. The process was varied and engaging, but also labour-intensive and time-consuming.
As the balance in comparative running costs started to tip, in 2005/2006 it became viable to screen samples by sequencing them directly, rather than using gels to visualise DNA PCR product bands and then sequencing a chosen few. The PALB2 experiment was the first such screen for us. It was straightforward, efficient and a great success in demonstrating involvement in familial breast cancer. An uncomfortable choice as “favourite”; but on the flipside, for the vast majority of families, the copies of PALB2 sequence that they inherit provide a degree of protection from breast cancer development.
What is a surprising fact that few people know about you?
My interest in science is equalled by art and by music. I decided to tackle a science degree when I left college rather than pursue music, on the basis that (in those days) science was a fairly safe bet when it comes to achieving a steady wage. As a teenager, I was part of a six-week orchestra tour of Australia which was an amazing experience.
If you had a chance to experience a completely different career for a week, what job would you try?
My main hobby is art, so a dream job would be stepping into the shoes of a famous and successful artist; does that qualify as a “career”? Maybe swap a week’s work with somebody contemporary that I admire, say Grayson Perry. Perhaps not literally step into some of his shoes….I’d resist a wardrobe swap.