The Genetizen


Advances in genetics and biotechnology are impacting society in provocative ways. The Genetizen is written by a select group of scientists, bioethicists, and healthcare professionals who provide you with expert analysis and commentary on many important issues.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in blog postings may or may not reflect the opinions of Geneforum. In addition, the content provided here is purely informational and not a substitute for advice from your personal physician.

Apologies to Craig Venter

I hereby express my sincere apologies to Craig Venter for describing him as "an
egotistical pompous ass". No, not in this blog--but verbally to friends and co-workers.

Venter gave an excellent lecture last night in Portland, Oregon as part of a local science lecture series. Basically, he focused on his book being sold in the lobby--as any lecture-giver would do--and his tone was often patting himself on the back for standing up to authority and being successful. But, successful people are entitled; and he's certainly successful:

  • He developed a computer technique for fast sequencing of genomes and accomplished mapping of the human genome (his) with considerably less time and cost than the Department of Energy results published at the same time.
  • He has since mapped over 50 genomes, discovered thousands of new organisms, and expanded the list of known genes in mammalian organisms.
  • He has focused people on the genome and its wonders in ways "boring" scientists have not.
  • He has turned venture capital and private donors' money into reams of knowledge.
  • He's fun to listen to.

I was most surprised to learn that his group spent a year and a half debating the ethics of sequencing the human genome before the work was done.  He also reminded me that his results are posted on the Internet, available for anyone to see and use. He publishes in the free-access online journal, PLoS.

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

Stem cells from primates

I just put my new Oregon license plates on my car and am proud to identify myself as an oregoniutahn (probably sounds like some commercial you've seen lately). Today's Oregonian included more on its front page about Shoukhrat Mitalipov's ability to cconvert monkey skin cells into heart, nerve and other adult cells. Before this, no one had been able to get the right combination of techniques and chemicals to complete the process. The journal Nature published a study detailing the breakthrough.

According to the Oregonian, "Mitalipov and his colleagues had cloned cells scraped from a monkey's skin, transforming them into embryonic stem cells by incubating their DNA inside an egg cell. Researchers "turned the resulting line of stem cells into heart cells, nerve cells and other adult cells."

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

Can the true nature of race be revealed through genetic testing?

The text below comes verbatim from an excellent article I received through my genetic testing Google alerts. You can find the original at Genetic Drift: The True Nature of Race Colorlines, News Report, Ziba Kashef, Posted: Nov 11, 2007 Ever since scientists discovered “the secret of life” embedded in our DNA a half century ago, the study of human genes has sparked debate about the nature of race. The question seemed to be settled in the early 1970s when biologist Richard Lewontin compared variations in genes within and among different population groups.

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

James Watson resigns from Cold Spring Harbor post

While attending the American Society for Human Genetics meeting in San Diego, I learned that James Watson has resigned from his post at Cold Spring Harbor. Frances Collins, also a well-known geneticist and Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, stated in a news release this afternoon:

"I am deeply saddened by the events of the last week, and understand and agree with Dr. Watson's undoubtedly painful decision to retire in the aftermath of a racist statement he made that was profoundly offensive and utterly unsupported by scientific evidence."

I, too, am saddened by Watson's comments that referred to people of African descent as inferior in intelligence. As a geneticist, I am even more upset by his assertion that all genetic tests prove this. What irresponsible comments for a "father" of genetics!

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

Genetic testing discussed by NPR

The National Public Radio site has an article posted online by Sarah Handel. The story includes also a link to audio of the broadcast. The story starts:

Our bodies are full of untold secrets about our futures. Turns out, predispositions for various diseases are plain as the nose on your face... If only someone takes a look at your DNA. OK, that's simplifying things, but there are now a variety of tests you can take to see if, say, a family history of breast cancer means you'll get it too. Or if you're going to pass cystic fibrosis on to your kids. Have you gotten tested? Do you want to? How much do you want to know about your medical future? What if one day, there's a test that will tell you how long you'll live (barring accidental death, of course)? Would you want to know? Is there a difference between knowing for yourself, and knowing about what genetic markers you could saddle your kids with?

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

James Watson "mortified" over the furor he caused

An article by Helen Nugent in the Times Online,October 19, 2007, suggests to me that James Watson may be showing some signs of aging that many experience. My husband used to say that people, as they age, stay like themselves--only more so. Watson has long been known, in science circles at least, for speaking his mind. Now he's done it in a more public arena and has been soundly condemned, both for his lack of scientific evidence and for his insensitivity to people of African heritage. Following the interview in The Sunday Times (see the previous blog entry), he found his string of speaking engagements in Britain cancelled and his position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, NY, suspended. He's now on his way back to the United States to "sort out" his job.

According to the most recent article in the Times,

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

Nobel Laureate James Watson: Africans less intelligent than Westerners

I just saw this Story . It says:

Dr Watson told The Sunday Times that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really".

Spoken by James Watson, the discoverer of DNA. (Yes, that Watson from Watson and Crick whom we all studied in bio.). Scary stuff. What's really surprising is that the American media seems to have totally ignored it.

read more | bwong's blog

Genetic Design

There's an interesting article in this month's While primarily about 23andMe and the future of "Web-surfing your own DNA," the thing that caught my eye was the interactive feature.

| read more | Genetizen's blog

Craig Venter's artificial life--new genetically-modified organism?

I forgot to buy my ticket for Craig Venter's lecture in Portland, Oregon November 15. Now, it may be too late.

Venter, of the human genome controversy, has announced that he has created artificial life. He--or someone in his laboratory--created a "chromosome" from 381 genes taken from Mycobacterium genitalum and inserted this material into a bacterium from which 1/3 of the genes necessary for life had been removed. The bacterium multiplied. In germ terms, that means it was alive.

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

2008 Olympics and Genetics

"We are not yet at a point where we can identify a potential future Olympic champion from genetic tests but we may not be very far away," said one of the authors of the British Association of Sport and Exercise's (BASE) position paper on "Genetic Research and Testing in Sport and Exercise Science."

However, BASE calls for more genetic research in the sport and exercise sciences because of the anticipated benefits for public health. It wants researchers to take a more active role in debating the implications of their work with the public.

"If a powerful muscle growth gene was identified, on the one hand this could help develop training programmes that increase muscle size and strength in athletes, but even more importantly the knowledge could be used to develop exercise programmes or drugs to combat muscle wasting in old age," said Dr Alun Williams from Manchester Metropolitan University, one of the report's authors.

| read more | Genetizen's blog

Jolee Mohr took part in a gene therapy clinical trial--and died

According to Wikipedia, "death is the permanent end of the life of a biological organism." My younger daughter would consider that a "scientific" definition--lacking humaness and empathy. This approach was also the approach I viewed this morning.

Today's review of the death last July of a young woman participating in a gene therapy trial was webcast and I did manage to get up at 5:00 am to watch all 7 hours of the live video. The meeting and review of gene therapy trials in general and this particular death were definitely "scientific". Even though I am familiar with much of the language of clinical trials, I had trouble following many of the details of the specific gene therapy and rheumatoid arthritis. If anyone doubted that the presentations were factual and unemotional, you only needed to hear the first and last sentence spoken by the victim's husband to get back to reality:

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

Genetic testing for breast cancer: marketing through fear

I wondered the other day when I saw a commercial advertising genetic testing for "breast cancer genes" whether the company that patented the tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2 and controls this segment of the genetic testing market was starting to have declining sales. They haven't advertised before; why now?

Perhaps their advertising is justified by the fact that, according to an article in the New York Times, "only 30,000 of more than 250,000 American women estimated to carry a mutation in BRCA1 or a related gene, BRCA2, have so far been tested."

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

Racial profiling and prescription drugs

I've been missing commercials on t.v. lately because I now have a DVR and can pause during the first commercial on a program, walk off, return later and watch the rest of the program, skipping over commercials. So, until last night, I hadn't seen the ad targeting black Americans with high blood pressure.

This commercial is an insult to black Americans! First, it states that people in this category (how is this defined, anyway?) are twice as likely to have a stroke as people not in this category. Then, it promises a treatment that will solve the problem.

Are we back to "any drop of Negro = Negro"? Is the ad saying, "if you're white, you don't need to listen to this commercial"? Or, is it more sinister?

| | read more | mgodfrey39's blog

Old friend quoted in Kansas City news article

Jason Gertzen, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, recently included quotes from Insoo Hyun in a column on stem cells. Insoo has provided material for geneforum from time to time, and I was happy to see his name in press again. Hyun is still at Case Western Reserve University and is an active participant in the International Society for Stem Cell Research. As a bioethicist, he has written about some of the difficulties of doing embryonic stem cell research, including the problems of acquiring donor eggs.

The article references work by a group at Harvard, following efforts to obtain embryonic stem cells without taking them from a developing blastocyst:

| read more | mgodfrey39's blog

So what is genomics, anyway?

My daughter--who's in Public Health now--asked me to define genomics.I told her that genomics was the study of genetic inheritance in populations, with a specific focus on disease conditions thought to have a major genetic component.

"So," says my daughter, "how does that differ from epidemiology? or population genetics?"

I blundered through, as usual, and then looked it up online. Although I started with Wikipedia, I finally chose the definition from the CDC national office of public health genomics as an appropriate one for her question:

| | read more | mgodfrey39's blog