New edition coming in September 2014!!!


The Forever Fix gang: Corey Haas with book, surrounded by mom Nancy and dad Ethan Haas, Ricki Lewis on left next to Lori and Hannah Sames. At book signing 3/24/12, Barnes + Noble, Albany NY.

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Glenn Nichols, surrounded by his hospice team. The author is in yellow.

Genetic Linkage

Using the Genetic Code for Passwords

December 7, 2014

Tags: genetic code, DNA, RNA, amino acids

Many years ago, a friend was helping me set up a desktop computer. When the time came to choose a password, he said it should be:

• Alphanumeric
• More than 7 numbers or letters
• Obvious to me, but not to anyone else

The genetic code popped into my mind, and has remained an endless source of diverse passwords, valuable because they may seem nonsensical to non-biologists. (more…)

When Mutation Counters Infection: From Sickle Cell to Ebola

November 19, 2014

Tags: balanced polymorphism, Ebola, sickle cell, cystic fibrosis, natural selection, Niemann-Pick C1, PKU, genetic disease, prions, mad cow disease

Balanced polymorphism retains mutant genes in populations when they protect against other conditions.
While pharmaceutical companies focus on drug discovery for Ebola virus disease, a powerful clue is coming from a rare “Jewish genetic disease” that destroys the brain. People with Niemann-Pick C1 disease can’t get Ebola, adding to the list of disease pairs that arise from a fascinating form of natural selection.

Balanced polymorphism, aka heterozygote advantage, is a terrific illustration of ongoing evolution. And it pits the human body against all sorts of invaders – prions, viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi. (more…)

Eman Reports from Ebola Ground Zero

November 19, 2014

Tags: Ebola, Liberia, Emmanuel Gokpolu, Ricki Lewis

Eman (arrow) at an Ebola awareness workshop a few weeks ago. He is in the hospital now, with a fever, but has tested negative for Ebola.
My last post continued Emmanuel Gokpolu’s reporting from Ebola ground zero in Liberia. Ebola interrupted Eman’s medical education, so now he is educating his people about strategies to minimize risk of infection.

Eman and I began a very special friendship when he first contacted me when using my human genetics textbook in college. Right now he is in a hospital with a fever, after finally convincing the staff to admit him. It might be a flare-up of his malaria, we don't yet know.

This post picks up in early October, when Ebola suddenly jumped from a topic rarely reported in the U.S. ,to major news when it arrived here. (more…)

Eman’s Emails from Liberia: Through September

October 24, 2014

Tags: Ebola, Liberia, virus, epidemiology, Monrovia

Emmanuel Gokpolu with his son, little Larry
Emmanuel Gokpolu, who lives in Liberia, calls me Mom, although he has a wonderful real mother. In Africa, family isn’t only about DNA.

Eman contacted me in 2007, after using my human genetics textbook in college. My husband Larry and I had been putting him through medical school in Monrovia -- until Ebola happened. Now the funds go for gloves, long sleeve shirts, detergents, food and medicine, to keep Eman and his family, including his almost-one-year-old son, Larry, safe.

This week Eman asked me to share his emails, which began arriving before many people here had heard of Ebola virus disease, or cared much about it if they had. The disease seemed, and was, half a world away.

The world is a small place. (more…)

SCID-X1 Gene Therapy, Take 2

October 12, 2014

Tags: gene therapy, bubble boy, SCID-X1, ADA deficiency, forever fix

David Vetter had SCID-X1 and became known as the bubble boy. (NASA)
Beneath all the bad news about viruses this week lies a good virus: the one that underlies gene therapy for X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID-X1),

Altered viruses are the vehicles that transfer healthy human genes into the cells of people in whom the genes aren’t working, providing a slew of new “forever fixes.” Nearly 100 gene transfer protocols are now in late-stage clinical trials. (more…)

No Ice Buckets or Pink Ribbons for Very Rare Genetic Diseases

October 10, 2014

Tags: rare diseases, ice bucket challenge, Leber congenital amaurosis, Batten disease, giant axonal neuropathy, juvenile Huntington disease, ALS, breast cancer

As enthusiasm for dumping ice on one another fades with autumn and October brings pervasive pink, I wish that attention would turn to families confronting diseases not as well known as ALS and breast cancer.

HOW RARE IS RARE?
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, “rare disease” in the U.S. means affecting fewer than 200,000 people. These conditions number about 6,800, collectively affecting nearly 30 million Americans or 1 in 10 people. Many are single-gene diseases. That means that the chance of more than one family member being affected is quite high (see Mendel's first law). Unlike those, most (>90%) cases of ALS and breast cancer aren’t inherited as single-gene traits, but are sporadic. Mutations happen during a person’s lifetime in somatic cells, perhaps due to an environmental trigger. A family with one member who has ALS wouldn't have as great a chance as it affecting another as a family with Huntington disease, for example.

With so many causes of rare diseases, comparing statistics is an apples-and-oranges exercise. But I collected a few anyway, for prevalence (the percentage of a population with a particular disease at a given time). (more…)

DNA and Dating: Buyer Beware

September 28, 2014

Tags: DNA, genetic testing, DNA and dating

Is DNA dating destiny?
Last week’s post dealth with three very serious applications of DNA testing. But not all DNA testing is to detect health-threatening conditions.

“Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene,” ran the headline on the front page of the New York Times, above an arresting image of a preschooler having his mouth swabbed for DNA. It’s from 2008, but remains a classic: I still assign it.

The sports gene company is apparently still around and still testing for variants in just one gene: ACTN3. Two copies of the R577X variant indicate inborn skill at endurance events, and no copies suggest a child stick to sprints. The lucky heterozygotes might excel at both! Never mind that a child has some 20,000 or so other genes affecting physiology.

DISSECTING A DNA DATING WEBSITE
The most damage a sports gene test can do is to keep a child from doing something she loves because of a DNA-obsessed parent. A more questionable application of DNA testing is as part of “relationship science,” something I learned about a few weeks ago when a reporter from healthline.com asked me about it. (more…)

Genetic Testing For All: Is It Eugenics?

September 21, 2014

Tags: genetic testing, eugenics, NIPT, BRCA, carrier testing, DNA

(NHGRI)
In recent weeks, there’s been talk of three types of genetic testing transitioning from targeted populations to the general public: carrier screens for recessive diseases, tests for BRCA cancers, and non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) to spot extra chromosomes in fetuses from DNA in the maternal bloodstream.

Are these efforts the leading edge of a new eugenics movement? It might appear that way, but I think not.

When I began providing genetic counseling 30 years ago at CareNet, a large ob/gyn practice in Schenectady, NY, (more…)

Black Pee Disease Offers New View of Arthritic Joints

September 13, 2014

Tags: arthritis, alkaptonuria, inborn error of metabolism, human genetics

The urine of a person with alkaptonuria turns dark upon standing.
When I read the headline of a recent press release – "A new cause of osteoarthritis identified by research on a rare disease" -- I was drawn to "rare disease," even though I actually have osteoarthritis. And when I read “alkaptonuria," I was catapulted back more than a century to the first description of an "inborn error of metabolism.” (more…)

Medical Success Stories: From Cystic Fibrosis to Diabetes

September 4, 2014

Tags: cystic fibrosis, type 2 diabetes, gastric bypass, Leber congenital amaurosis, gene therapy, A1C, natural history study, adenosine deaminase deficiency, SCID-X1

The many guises of CF.
A skinny little boy, with mocha skin and curly black hair, lived in the apartment building next door when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. He didn’t live long enough to go to kindergarten. He had cystic fibrosis.

Today’s tots with CF face a far brighter future. A recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine applied trends in survival from 2000 to 2010 to project life expectancy for children diagnosed in 2010: 37 years for girls and 40 years for boys. (The difference may reflect hormones or the extra creatinine in the more muscular male of the species.) Factoring in the current rate of treatment improvements gives a soaring median survival of 54 years for women and 58 years for men when those kids grow up! (more…)

Selected Works

blog posts
An annotated table of topics and textbook chapter #s for my DNA Science blog posts at Public Library of Science.
instruction
Project to engage students in helping families with rare genetic diseases
Book Club Reader's Guide
Many challenging questions to stimulate thought and discussion.
Instructor's Guide
38 discussion questions to get students thinking and talking about gene therapy, including the science, ethical issues, and the drug approval process.
Narrative science
The Forever Fix is the uplifting true story of 8-year-old Corey Haas, who was cured of hereditary blindness just 4 days after gene therapy.
College Textbooks
A spectacularly-illustrated, clearly written human anatomy and physiology textbook, used in pre-health profession programs throughout the U.S.
A highly engaging, clearly written, beautifully illustrated introduction to the science of human genetics for the non-scientist. Now in its 10th edition.
Nonfiction
DNA reflects who we are -- but it isn’t the whole story.

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