Lynn Jorde: The human and economic value of studying our genes

Utah is a growing hub for genetics and genomics and other life sciences.

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune The Natural History Museum of Utah exhibit "Genome: Unlocking Life's Code," explored how scientists (including many from University of Utah Health Sciences) have unlocked the mysteries of the human genome for the benefit of humankind. Here a mannequin is covered in genetic code at the museum in Salt Lake City Thursday May 19, 2016.

Twenty years ago, the federally funded Human Genome Project produced the first draft of the human genome sequence — a once-unfathomable scientific achievement. Today, that investment in human genetics and genomic research is fueling transformative health advances, economic growth, and even greater societal benefits.

Utah is a major epicenter, and beneficiary, of this progress.

We are increasingly familiar with emerging genomic health advances: improving effectiveness of medicines for heart disease and cancer, restoring sight and building hope for patients and families facing conditions such as sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis. Genomics is helping us test and understand how individuals respond to infectious diseases like COVID-19 and it is improving our ability to diagnose and treat rare diseases.

Additionally, through job creation, government and private research funding, tax revenue and improvements to our quality of life, the economic benefits of genomics research are also powerful incentives to continue increasing our investment in biomedical research.

Utah is a growing hub for genetics and genomics and other life sciences. According to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and BioUtah, in 2017, life science companies directly and indirectly supported 6.7% of Utah’s employment and 7.9% of its GDP. National Institutes of Health federal research grants in Utah reached $260 million in 2020. These investments in turn attract philanthropic and commercial investment, which further benefit our economy.

Quantifying that benefit is not easy but is essential to understand why this field has such outsized importance. Because of the relative newness of human genetics and genomics research, there is a lack of information about its economic effects.

A new report helps fill that gap. The report, prepared by TEConomy and commissioned by the American Society of Human Genetics, concludes the “overall economic impact of U.S. human genetics and genomics was more than $265 billion in 2019.” This figure encompasses measures of output, employment, labor income, overall value added to GDP, and federal and state/local tax revenues. Behind that substantial figure are others:

• $3.3 billion annually in human genetics and genomics federal research funding, largely from NIH, the world’s largest medical research agency, which funds research in communities nationwide;

• $15.5 billion in estimated direct and indirect federal tax revenue generated each year;

• 850,000 jobs supported, including direct jobs at industry and academic institutions and jobs supported indirectly by industry; and

• 4.12 additional jobs generated by every direct job in human genetics and genomics.

The benefit of this investment is not limited just to jobs and revenue. The cost burden in the U.S. of diseases that human genetics and genomics research seeks to address runs into trillions of dollars — not to speak of the human and societal impact this research helps alleviate.

Human genetics and genomics are now a daily asset in a growing number of medical fields such as cancer, human development (through pre- and post-natal testing), and brain disorders such as Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, depression, and schizophrenia.

In coming years, this research will help determine predisposition to, or the presence of, disease; more efficient drug development; and the interactions of environmental, lifestyle, and genetic factors that influence disease risk.

Beyond the pandemic, the future is incredibly bright for human health, and human genetics and genomics research is playing a vital role. Utah’s and the nation’s economic health hinge on discovery and innovation. The people of Utah are fortunate to have leaders who understand the value of medical research. As federal leaders consider stimulus plans, research should be a key component.

Ultimately, this research will benefit Utahns and all of humankind.

Lynn Jorde | University of Utah Department of Human Genetics

Lynn Jorde, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He is also chair of government and public advocacy for the American Society of Human Genetics.