Kari Stefansson is a name well known in the field of human genetics. His founding of deCODE genetics in his native Iceland in 1996 took our field into a new frontier with the unique opportunity to work with not only a homogenous population but also to integrate with a large centralized healthcare database. It also surfaced a huge ethical debate about genomic privacy.
We’re very happy to welcome Kari to the program for the first time to talk about his vision for deCODE now that the company has been bought by Amgen. The company has continued to publish papers revealing major findings of rare variants associated with common diseases. Just last month Kari and deCODE published a paper in the NEJM with the discovery of a gene called ASGR1. The gene lowers the risk of heart disease by a substantial 34%.
Kari is passionate about discovery for the sake of discovery.
“All life on earth is rooted in information that lies in the simple code of As and Gs and Cs and Ts of DNA,” he reminds us. “Some of our discoveries are knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It is man studying man.”
But he also points out that as soon as they made the discovery of the ASGR1 heart-protective gene, researchers at Amgen went to work immediately on a drug discovery program. And, he says, he knows that many other pharma companies have already begun similar programs.
deCODE is perhaps best known though for their project to create a genomic database unlike any in the world. And for the ethical issues this has brought up. Last year deCODE announced that they had sequenced enough individuals to impute the genomes for the entire population of Iceland. This could lead to a new kind of preventative healthcare system that would be a model for other countries everywhere. It’s also left Kari and his colleagues scratching their heads over whether, for example, they have a social obligation to find out who in Iceland carries the dangerous BRCA mutations.
He shares some dramatic statistics that reveal their dilemma:
"Women who carry this mutation have 86% probability of developing a lethal cancer. They have 72% probability of developing breast cancer. They have a life expectancy that is twelve years shorter than non-carriers. They are three times more likely to die before the age of 70 than the non-carriers. And most of this risk could be mitigated by preventative surgery, for example.”
The interview goes well over our typical target of 20 minutes. But Kari is a deliberate thinker and an eloquent speaker. Enjoy.