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Why our trustee is walking 100 km to help analyse genetic data

Created:

15 February 2019

Our trustee, Andrew George, explains why he is putting on his walking boots to raise money that will help us to analyse genetic data and increase our understanding of epilepsy.

In May I am doing something that feels close to impossible. I will be walking 100 km non-stop from London to Brighton. While for some people this may be a breeze, for me it will be tough, really tough.

Why am I doing this? I want to raise money for a research project that will contribute to the work of the Epilepsy Society in treating or preventing epilepsy. We are looking to fund a bioinformatician to analyse the genetic data that the scientists are producing.

Scientific progress

When I started my scientific career in the 1980s there was no such thing as a bioinformatician. If I worked really hard I could produce five or 10 items of data in an experiment. I could analyse those with the help of a ruler, graph paper and pencil. As science got more powerful and complex I would do experiments that produced maybe 100 items of data, these could be analysed using a computer and spreadsheets.

However, the genetic data we are getting now is on a totally different scale. The human genome contains over three billion base pairs, and so if you sequence one human being you have more than three billion data points. That is well out of the scope of a ruler, pencil and graph paper! The Epilepsy Society is currently working on getting data from 5000 people with epilepsy.

First human genome

The reason for this is that the technology has changed. When the first human genome was sequenced it cost US$5 billion and took many years. Now, scientists can sequence a person’s DNA in 48 hours, and it will cost just a thousand pounds.

This is incredibly powerful because it gives scientists and doctors access to information about why one person gets epilepsy and another does not. It also allows them to discover new causes of epilepsy. This makes a difference. Research carried out by the Society at its centre in Chalfont St Peter, together with partners in UCL, showed that for one young man his epilepsy was caused by a single gene mutation. This predicted that a drug, normally used for heart disease and not for epilepsy, might be effective for him.

Needle in a haystack

The bottle neck in this research is analysing the data. The scientists are looking through an enormous haystack to find the needle. The only way to do this is to use new mathematical approaches to analysing the data, and this is why you need a bioinformatician – a person who has the expertise to use these new methods to interpret the information from each person’s genome.

Find out more about bioinformatics

£5,000 fundraising target

So I will be walking 100 km to try and raise money to support the work of a bioinformatician for a month. My target is £5,000, about 5p for every step that I will take. I have started to train for this. Last weekend I also bought some new boots, and went for my first walk in them – about 10 km. I need to build up over the next 3 ½ moths.

As well as raising money for the Epilepsy Society I am also doing this for myself. I am not the most physically active person, and it will be good for me to do something that is a real challenge for me. I am also trying to persuade myself that it will be fun – though I am sure that around the 70 km mark, when it is in the middle of the night and raining heavily, I may not feel that!

So please wish me well, if you can support the work of the Epilepsy Society then I would also be grateful.

How to support Andrew on his walk

You can support Andrew in raising money to help fund a bioinformatician by going to his Just Giving site.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Epilepsy Society.