The Rodney Wylie Eminent Visiting Fellowship Lectures brings a globally respected visitor to the University each year to provide intellectual leadership and engage with alumni and the community through its annual public lecture series.
The power and potential of genetics to improve healthcare
For all the common human diseases, and the common cancers, genetic variation is one key part of the differences between individuals in disease susceptibility. Environmental and lifestyle differences also play a central role for some of these diseases, while in others genetics is the primary risk factor. Until recently, we have had no way of quantifying the genetic component of risk for common diseases like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, or breast, prostate, and bowel cancer.
It turns out that there isn’t one, or even a few, genes for each of these diseases. Instead, for each disease, there are millions of positions in our DNA which contribute to our risk of developing the disease. Individually, each of these positions has only a very small effect, but together they can have a substantial impact. Some people can be 30 times more likely than others to develop the disease, solely because of the cumulative impact of their genetics.
A single test can now quantify someone's genetic risk for each of the common diseases, when they are still healthy, years ahead of symptoms developing. Where appropriate, the genetic risk can be combined with other clinical risk factors to get a much better overall picture of their risk. Health systems already have pathways for people at increased risk of disease, through prevention, screening, and treatment programmes. But currently, there are large numbers of people who are at high risk who are completely invisible to healthcare systems, because we haven’t been able to quantify their genetic risk.
These developments will usher in a new era in medicine where we can be much more nuanced in our understanding of individual risk, and do a much better job of getting the right people into existing screening, prevention, and treatment programmes. This is good for the individual, as it either avoids disease entirely or catches it early when outcomes are much better, and good for health systems both in the short term in getting more value from their existing prevention and early-detection programmes, but also over the longer term in avoiding much higher costs after acute episodes. Moving healthcare upstream, to better prevention, is also essential to making health systems more sustainable in the longer term.
About the presenter
Professor Sir Peter Donnelly
Professor Sir Peter Donnelly FRS FMedSci is one of the global leaders and pioneers at the interface of human genetics and medicine. He is CEO and Co-Founder of Genomics plc, and Emeritus Professor of Statistical Science at the University of Oxford.
Peter grew up in Brisbane and after being selected as Queensland Rhodes Scholar he studied for a doctorate in mathematics at Oxford. During his subsequent decorated academic career, his research interests evolved from mathematics and statistics to human genetics and human disease. Peter played a leading role in what has come to be known as the “Genetic Revolution” - the explosion in our knowledge of regions of our DNA that play a role in the susceptibility to all the common human diseases. From 2007 to 2017 he was Director of Oxford’s Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, one of the premier international human genetics research institutes.
In 2014, along with several colleagues in Oxford, Peter founded Genomics plc to move scientific breakthroughs into mainstream healthcare. He became the company’s CEO in 2017. Genomics has developed sophisticated algorithms which give a much more detailed and personalised picture of an individual’s risk for each of the common human diseases and is using these to drive a powerful new prevention-first approach in healthcare by driving earlier interventions, more targeted disease prevention programmes, more efficient screening, and better diagnoses.
Peter has received numerous honours in recognition of his work, most recently a Knighthood in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the understanding of human genetics in disease. His TED talk has been downloaded over a million times.
The Rodney Wylie Lectures will come to Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney in September 2023.
Enquiries: contact Keiko Nishino, Senior Coordinator, Alumni Relations, Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at

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