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The Making of Medicine

We Can Predict the Severity of Your Genetic Disease

Our J. Julius Zhu, PhD, has found a way to predict the severity of genetic disease just by measuring mind-bogglingly small interactions between molecules. He and his team of international collaborators have developed a technique that lets them measure the effect gene mutations have on the molecules that cells use to communicate with each other. Their technique could be used in all sorts of conditions with a genetic component, from Alzheimer’s to diabetes to heart disease — even obesity.

I am gobsmacked by the precision this measurement requires. Force is typically measured in newtons — that is, the amount of force needed to accelerate one kilogram of mass one meter per second squared. But Zhu’s technique measures on a scale of piconewtons – one trillionth of a newton. The researchers can do this using what are called optical tweezers, a device that can hold and move microscopic objects using a highly focused laser. (!)

Zhu’s team used their technique to look at the effect of gene mutations in mental-health diseases. It turns out that the mutations change the interactions of cell signalling molecules by a few piconewtons. This damages the cellular communications and then leads to cognitive impairment. By measuring the change, the researchers could predict the severity of the disease. They can now go on to apply this to other genetic diseases.

I would be remiss not to point out Dr. Zhu’s collaborators around the world, including scientists at Peking University in China, Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Zhejiang University School of Medicine in China and Radboud University in the Netherlands. The measurements may be tiny, but the work is global.


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