On January 15, the National Institutes of Health is beginning a series of lectures on Current Topics in Genome Analysis. If you do not live in striking distance of the location of the lectures (Lipsett Amphitheatre, NIH Clinical Center (Building 10), on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland from 10:00 am to 11:30 am), you can get all the information you need from the website. Lectures will be available online after the live lecture is finished and DVDs will also be available. There should not be any charge for either.
I was lucky enough to attend several scientific meetings this year, thanks to the Advocate Partnership program of the Genetic Alliance, and attended the session where one of the scientists involved presented the information being discussed in many media outlets yesterday and today about the genetics of autism. As you read, listen to, or watch the news presentations, note that the "large, non-inherited chromosomal deletion" being discussed is extremely rare and in no way accounts for all cases of autism. Also, the parents of affected children were themselves unaffected.
I was once lucky enough to teach genetics to an advanced placement biology class in high school and was able to teach Mendelian genetics after teaching about DNA, RNA, etc. I also had my students read Huxley's Brave New World. In the Mendel unit, they did fruit fly crosses and were to use their results to respond to Mendel's letter about the seven "inheritable units" he studied. They had to identify and name the mutation they were studying, then follow its inheritance through two generations. What mattered in the final analysis was how they interpreted their data in comparison with Mendel's predictions. Naturally, I chose mutations that didn't seem to fit predictions.
I got side-tracked today to a computer guru site, one portion of which deals with general issues. In this case, a writer wanted to get an update on genetics before he started a new course at college. He asked a series of questions basically worded as vocabulary definitions
In geneticss, can it be said that:
Codons are composed of three bases
Alleles are composed of any (within reason) number of codons
Chromatids are formed by lots and lots of alleles
Chromosomes are formed by two chromatids (except during 2nd stage meiosis)
Genomes are formed by the full number of chromasomes found in a cell.
The human genome has been sequenced. Genetic testing--according to media and advertisements—is available to help you determine how to live the rest of your life. The price for this information had dropped below $1000. Are we any closer to the promises of cures for debilitating diseases?
Douglas Kamerow, former US assistant surgeon general and associate editor of the British Medical Journal, in an article dated 5 January 2008, asks what have we gotten for our money?
At least three articles today indicate that experts around the world are finding genetic tests available through the Internet are a waste of time and money. Here are the three I sampled:
1. From Australia: Genetic testing over the net a waste of money says experts
. . .people who buy genetic tests from private companies are usually wasting their money. The specialists say the genome-wide scans on offer will provide little meaningful information because the science is still too preliminary.
They also believe the scans can mislead people into becoming either over-anxious about being labelled "high risk", or over-confident that they are at low risk of a particular disease.
The big hype this week in genetic testing comes from the addition of yet another company to those hoping that we are so interested in learning about ourselves that we will fork over $1000 (or $999 or $985 at a discount) for a map of our own genome.
Here are some things about this subject you might want to know:
1. How do you take a sample? You won't know the details until your kit arrives, but you will most likely learn that the sample will be saliva or a rubbing from the inside of your cheek. You don't have to provide a blood sample. If the company info doesn't provide clear enough instructions, be sure you rinse your mouth well before taking a sample; you'd probably hate to pay $1000 for the genome of that beef or corn you just ate.
I learned about the newest stem cell advance--converting human skin cells into stem cells--the day before the news was released. I didn't write about it as the news was breaking because I needed time to digest what the newspapers and online news sources were saying. So, now I'm ready.
I'm pleased to see that almost all articles inserted at least one note of caution about how long it will be before the discovery could translate into treatments for human conditions. Typically, however, the caution appeared in the "weakest" position in the articles, at the end of the carryover to an inner page. This, of course, is the place readers rarely reach.
Yesterday, the blog received a comment from a site that might be of interest to those in
public health genomics and genetically modified organisms:
Submitted by Martin Donohoe on Mon, 11/19/2007 - 6:09am.
I have recently developed a website covering public health and social justice, which can be found at http://www.phsj.org or at http://www.publichealthandsocialjustice.org. The website covers the social, economic, environmental, human rights, and cultural contributors to health and disease. The site contains articles, slide shows, syllabi, and other documents. References for most of the information contained in the slide shows can be found in the accompanying articles. Presentations will be updated a few times per year.
If you missed it, you should check out the article that appeared in the New York Times written by Amy Harmon. She titled it: My Genome, Myself: Seeking Clues in DNA. Amy writes in a put-it-down-on-as-it-comes-out-of-your-head style not unlike mine, so of course I enjoyed reading it.
Amy was given the chance--and she accepted it--to be one of the early participants in the $1000 sales of whole genome analysis being offered online by several companies. In my usual policy of not naming specific companies, I'll let you check her article or use a search engine to find one.