MM 2001: Health - People

December 21, 2000

Scaling the computerised face of biomedicine

Few scientists can expect to share an £8 million grant or head a research group before finishing their PhDs. Ewan Birney , team leader for genomic annotation at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, has done both.

Bioinformatics is about storing and analysing genetic information. "Having the genome is like being given War and Peace in Russian," says Birney. "If you don't speak Russian, it's not much use."

Birney's aim is to produce the user-friendly translation of the genome. Once the individual genes have been identified, it becomes possible to work out their role in disease - and what to do about it.

Birney read biochemistry at Oxford University, then did a PhD in genetics at Cambridge. But his career began during a pre-university gap year at America's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "They had a computational problem that nobody wanted to solve. I found myself a computer and worked at it. Bioinformatics was then so new that even a 19-year-old could make an impact and publish a paper. Then, at Oxford, what had started off as just playing around with computers became serious research. While still a student I was able to write original papers and stuff like that."

And "stuff like that", now supported by the Wellcome Trust, occupies him still.

Inequalities in health and wealth

The claim that social inequalities influence health finds powerful support from studies in Eastern Europe. Martin Bobak of University College London qualified as a doctor in Prague, worked in public health in Czechoslovakia, then came to Britain for his thesis.

Income distribution used to be far more equal in Eastern Europe than in the West, and Bobak has made several studies of the effects of this. One factor had a particular health impact: education. "It's interesting because education was not rewarded by more money (in Eastern Europe). In fact, better-educated people were often a bit poorer. But they still had better health," Bobak says.

He has also studied health in the wake of communism's collapse.

"By 1995, there was an enormous increase in inequality. In Russia, income inequality now resembles that of Latin America. The health of the richer and better educated is the same or slightly improved. But those with a poor education have become less healthy.

"In Eastern Europe, most people, especially older ones, know little about this work. Younger ones dismiss it as irrelevant."

So is Bobak likely to return to Eastern Europe? He thinks not.

"This is the best place in the world to do the work I'm doing now."

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