Despite the promising and rapid advancements made in healthcare in recent years, there are still wide, and unfair, disparities in health status amongst different populations. Reasons for such health inequalities range from poverty and lack of education to reduced employment opportunities. With the right mix of governmental policies and accessibility to healthcare, health inequalities are certainly preventable – but what about the inequalities caused by our very own genes?
During university, I had the chance to work with the charity Social Action for Health, who aim to tackle the health inequalities that exist across London. I specifically worked on raising awareness about the ‘Genes & Health’ medical research study led by Queen Mary University. Their pioneering research focused on addressing the particularly high rates of poor health and diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, faced by British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities.
So, why is it the case that some diseases affect certain people more than others? It can be largely due to their genes.
- Genes 101
Genes are our body’s instruction manual. They ultimately tell the cells that make up our body what to do and when to do it. Not only do they determine physical features such as the colour of our eyes and skin, but they also guide critical life processes such as digestion, movement, and fighting off infections. Our genes are made up of a specific sequence of ‘building blocks’, and all humans have unique variations (or ‘mutations’) in some of these sequences. This is why you will never see two people that are completely identical to each other – even ‘identical’ twins aren’t truly identical.
- How can genes cause health inequalities?
The type of genetic mutation an individual has and where it occurs can ultimately determine how your genes affect your health, and for some individuals, their genetic mutation will lead them to become severely disadvantaged.
Take for example the BRCA1 gene. Having a mutation in the BRCA1 gene increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer by up to 85% by 70 years of age, thus making them significantly more likely to end up living with this debilitating disease. The same goes for the 5 million individuals worldwide with genetic mutations predisposing them to developing a retinal disease, or for the 70,000 individuals worldwide who have a mutated CFTR gene and may develop life-threatening cystic fibrosis. The list of genetic mutations which impede health status goes on, and so does the number of people dealing with the consequences.
- Can we overcome genetic health inequalities?
Health issues caused by genetic mutations are far from a simple fix. However, increasingly innovative research into genetics and genetic technology being led by scientists globally has certainly brought us closer to solving this issue than we’ve ever been before.
There are still many diseases for which potential genetic causes are yet to be found – this is exactly what the Genes & Health study is trying to fix. They have so far recruited over 50,000 volunteers from British Bangladeshi and British Pakistani communities to donate a sample of their saliva. Through that simple act, participants are supporting the scientists leading the study as they seek to further understand how genes work and how diseases develop in these communities. By identifying the genes responsible for health problems, we can generate more accurate screening and prevention processes, and even develop specific medicines and treatments.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned from the Genes & Health project was that we can all collaborate in scientific research. No matter your level of scientific knowledge you can help raise awareness or even take part in such research, ultimately bringing us closer to hopefully eradicating health inequalities and improving health and quality of life for all.
Ruder Finn has decades of experience working in the healthcare communications field. If you would like to find out more about our capabilities, you can reach the Healthcare team at RFHealthcareUK@ruderfinn.com. We’d love to hear from you.