Neanderthal genes and Nobel Prize in a popular lecture at Bioscience

An inherited gene variant from our ”evolutionary cousins” – the extinct Neanderthals – may affect how our bodies break down certain drugs. “It’s only a matter of time before we actively start screening for it,” said KI researcher Hugo Zeberg when describing the study at Bioscience 2022.

Hugo Zeberg is an evolutionary geneticist at the Karolinska Institute, and he is also part of the recent Nobel laureate Svante Pääbo’s research group at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

His lecture has attracted great interest, and although he was the last speaker at the conference on November 8, the auditorium was practically packed. Hugo Zeberg spoke enthusiastically and lovingly about his extinct subjects of study, who disappeared from the face of the earth some 42,000 years ago.

“We tend to talk about them as cavemen, but this is an image that should be modified. We know for a fact that they controlled fire, cared for the sick and wounded and buried their dead. They made tools both for their home and for hunting, and they were not as stupid as some might think.”

The mapping of the Neanderthal genome has yielded a wealth of new information, not least about how gene variants inherited from them still affect us today.

An average European has inherited about 2% of their DNA from Neanderthals. However, it is not the same 2% of the DNA, but the inherited gene variants vary significantly in different individuals.

Hugo Zeberg’s study shows that one of the variants is causing a significantly slower breakdown of certain common drugs, such as ibuprofen and the blood-thinning drug warfarin.

“It is a well-known fact that certain Neanderthal gene variants make us more sensitive to pain, reduce the risk of miscarriage, increase fertility and increase resistance to HIV. Now we are able to add the ability to metabolise drugs,” he said.

In that case, shouldn’t we screen for this gene variant to avoid wrong dosages and unnecessary drug damage? Someone from the audience was wondering.

“I believe that it will happen soon because this is not an unusual gene variant; 10-12% of us carry it,” said Hugo Zeberg.

In a conversation with the organiser Life Science Sweden’s Editor-in-Chief Samuel Lagercrantz Hugo Zeberg revealed his reaction when he found out that Svante Pääbo had been awarded the Nobel Prize.

“I was rather shocked. His research is amazing, so in that sense, it was no surprise, but I was still rather amazed by the fact that they dared to award the medicine prize for evolutionary genetics. However, I think it was an excellent choice.”

When the award was announced, the commotion was unmistakable at the Max Planck Institute. A video that spread around the world shows Pääbo getting thrown into a pond by exalted colleagues.

Hugo Zeberg was not participating in the commotion, but only because he was in Stockholm at the time.

“That’s the tradition in Leipzig. When you defend a thesis, you get thrown into the pond. He has thrown lots of colleagues into the pond himself, and now he got the same treatment. He deserved it!”

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