The Great Gene Hunt (cont'd)

Posted by Pete Shanks September 3, 2010
Biopolitical Times

At Biopolitical Times, we have frequently ridiculed a "gene of the week" -- an instance where someone, occasionally a huckster or scientist but usually a headline writer, has overhyped or oversimplified some discovery related to genomics. So it's a pleasure to give credit where it's due, for this accurate Reuters headline:

Study finds first genetic link
to common migraine

The story was based on a study published in Nature Genetics [abstract] that analyzed genetic data from over 50,000 people. As with all such genome-wide association studies, a number of caveats apply, which are addressed in the paper, as they should be. More impressively, some of them are noted in the Reuters piece:

The scientists said further research would be needed into the DNA variant, and into its effect on the genes around it, to find out more about how migraines occur. Further work was also needed to search for other possible genetic links, they said.

The writer, Kate Kelland, also included details about the risk variant being "on chromosome 8 between two genes known as PGCP and MTDH/AEG-1" and appearing "to regulate levels of glutamate ... by altering the activity of MTDH/AEG-1 in cells, which regulates the activity of the EAAT2 gene." Which may be dull to the general public, but does suggest a level of engagement with the material that should be more common than it is.

Not everyone followed this subdued example ("Migraine Gene Sparks Cure Hope" — Daily Mirror, a British tabloid), but the exact Reuters headline drew 134,000 hits on Google three days after it first appeared, about ten times as many as "migraine gene" or "gene for migraine." Kudos to Reuters!

The search for ever-stranger "genes for ..." is not, however, a thing of the past. A team of scientists from North Carolina, Arizona and Singapore is publishing a paper in the wonderfully named Journal of Organizational Behavior, suggesting that there are "genetic underpinnings of survey response." Yes indeed, some people have evolved predispositions to ... hang up the wretched phone when a pollster calls during dinner. Sigh.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: