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

Genetic Linkage

A Necessary Retelling of the Smallpox Vaccine Story

January 17, 2017

Tags: vaccine, smallpox, Edward Jenner, Donald Trump, RFK Jr, autism, anti-vaxxer

People once feared that small cows would emerge from the arms of vaccinated people. Ignorance about vaccines persists.
A curious confluence of events unfolded January 10. Just hours before President Obama uttered the powerful “science and reason matter” in his farewell address, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced that the incoming president had tapped him to head a committee on vaccine safety.

RFK Jr. is not a pediatric immunologist nor an epidemiologist, but a vocal "vaccine skeptic". Although the PEOTUS dialed back on the purported appointment shortly after social media erupted, a tweet from March 28, 2014 clarifies the new president’s analysis of the history and science of vaccines:

Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases! (more…)

Gene Action Tracks an Autoimmune Disease: Systemic Sclerosis

January 5, 2017

Tags: systemic sclerosis, scleroderma

Systemic sclerosis (Ssc) is a rare disease in which collagen gloms up internal organs and toughens the skin into an armor of sorts. It's also called scleroderma, from the Greek for “hard” (skleros) and “skin” (derma). Ssc is autoimmune, not inherited, but a recent report in JCI Insight describes how gene expression profiling -- transcriptomics – can add precision to diagnosis, monitor response to treatment, and identify drugs that might be repurposed to target SSc. (more…)

Genetics Error in "The Man in the High Castle" Season 2?

January 4, 2017

Tags: The Man in the High Castle

What if the Germans and Japanese had won WW2?
I’ve just finished watching season 2 of Amazon video’s terrifying The Man in the High Castle, which depicts an alternate reality in which Germany and Japan won the second world war, with an atomic bomb taking out Washington, DC. I admit confusion over gaping plot holes and teasers, but I did catch enough of the dialog to suspect that genetic info about one of the families is wrong.

Thomas Smith, adolescent son of Obergruppenführer John Smith, has a form of muscular dystrophy. According to a footnote in Wikipedia, it is Landouzy-Dejerine syndrome, which I hadn’t heard of by that name but recognized its name today, facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). It is autosomal dominant – if you have it, so does or did one of your parents, unless you're a new mutation (about 30 percent of cases).

In a 10-second scene in the final episode, we learn that John Smith’s uncle had the disease, and that his two daughters must be carriers.

Well, no.

A dominant condition doesn’t have carriers. You have the mutation or you don't, although symptoms may occur later in life, in which case a person with the mutation is pre-manifest, not a carrier in the classic sense. Since Tom’s uncle had it too, presumably before the State murdered him, and the condition is rare, it must be inherited, not due to a new mutation. I can only reconcile these facts if John Smith has the mutation too but is non-penetrant – meaning he has the genotype but not the phenotype. I wonder what the Nazis, obsessed with purifying the gene pool, would do with that intel! Plus, Thomas has what appears to be seizures and he trips – not the upper body weakness of the disease.

I suppose the writers chose FSHD because it isn’t horrible, making it more horrible that the Nazis exterminate those who have it. When Thomas realizes that he’s not healthy, he mutters the mantras “I’m a useless eater” and “I'm defective.”

I won’t spoil the ending. But can anyone explain an inheritance pattern that has carriers and non-penetrance? Meanwhile, maybe the new showrunner for season 3 will take a genetics course.

Genetics in 2016: Breakthrough, Breakdown, and Bridge

December 21, 2016

Tags: gene therapy, CAR-T technology, exon skipping, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy, DMD, SMA

I dislike end-of-year "best of" lists, especially the "breakthroughs" that imply scientific discoveries and medical advances emerge from out of nowhere. Often they're the product of PR machines that select and then catapult certain research findings into the news releases that dictate the headlines.

WHAT MAKES SCIENCE NEWS?
Much of science news is released to journalists ahead of time (embargoed) so that we can investigate background and conduct interviews. This year, the Food and Drug Administration began offering news even earlier to select media outlets. (more…)

Linking Gaucher and Parkinson’s Diseases

December 11, 2016

Tags: Gaucher disease, Parkinson's disease, lysosomal storage disease

"Gaucher cells" have a crinkly appearance from the build-up of glucocerebroside.
This month, JScreen’s ”Spit Happens" campaign is covering all costs not met by insurance for testing for carrier status for Gaucher disease, thanks to funding from the National Gaucher Foundation. The "spit happens" is an entertaining view of people spitting into tubes to collect DNA from dislodged cheek lining cells. (more…)

Parent Roundtable: Before and After Gene Therapy

December 2, 2016

Tags: gene therapy, rare diseases

Eliza had gene therapy this past spring, and is showing small signs of improvement.
As the revamped 21st Century Cures Act winds its way through the lame duck Congress, I’m reminded of a spellbinding dinner on Sunday night, October 16. It was the eve of the annual "breakthrough summit" for the National Organization for Rare Disorders, and I’d introduced a group of new friends to share their stories of life with a child who has had, or will have, gene therapy. (more…)

Why I Yanked "Morlock Nation"

November 13, 2016

Tags: Donald Trump and the New Morlock Nation

On Thursday, November 10, I briefly posted a blog called “Donald Trump and the New Morlock Nation” on my usual website (not this one). I took the post down after threatening comments were posted and the tone was escalating.

I regret having given up my first amendment rights to bullies. I would rather have had a conversation. The commenters did not understand my point – that our differences taken to extremes and under some pretty unlikely circumstances (plus a very long time) could theoretically lead to a speciation event.

The post dealt with the contribution of heredity to intelligence. I used many disclaimers and never used a judgmental term such as “subspecies,” although I was accused of having done so.

My scenario based on theoretical population genetics had appropriate links to back up my hypothesis – for that is all it was. I meant no harm.

If anyone wishes to contact me through this website, I can send a word document by email, with or without links, of the post. This offer is to promote education.

“Rare Is Everywhere” – Support a New Children’s Book

November 6, 2016

We treasure rare genetic variants in our pets – from multi-toed cats to white rabbits to short-legged hounds. But genetic variants that cause disease – in people and pets – can be not only devastating, but isolating when no one has heard of them. That's particularly so for children.

Deborah Katz, a professor of nursing as well as a medical writer and editor and an artist, decided to do something to help children dealing with rare genetic diseases. She’s written a marvelous book, “Rare is Everywhere,” that taps into genetic quirks in beloved animals. A kickstarter campaign to fund the first print run is underway now, ending November 22. All proceeds will go to the Rare Disease Foundation a non-profit that funds research and programs for children with rare diseases.

Ms. Katz explains how she got the idea to write “Rare is Everywhere”:

“I’ve met so many kids in the last two decades-- personally and professionally - who feel like they are the only ones that are different. Even though I would tell them “you aren't the only one, there are so many others like you, and your difference can be a strength,” I felt like just saying it didn't really have an impact.

I've always had a passion for children's literature and its power to shape and inspire, and had written numerous stories for my own children over the years that I would tell to them at bedtime. So I started thinking about writing a children's book that showed kids that differences are common. One day, one of my children asked me what it means if something is rare. In trying to answer in a meaningful, scientific sort of way, I started to explain what a gene is and how we differ from one another in a way that my child could grasp.

I then had a Eureka! moment-- I could write a book that explains what rare is by showcasing animals with genetic changes that distinguish them from other members of their species, and that also shows kids how common differences are when you take a birds-eye view of the entire animal kingdom.”


Sometimes it is better to be different. The book points out when rare variants are actually beneficial. The white spirit bear is superior at catching fish, the black penguin mother stands out to her babies, while the black jaguar fades into the backdrop of a dark forest floor. My favorite is the white alligator:

I put twigs on my head and leaves by the bunch
When birds land on me, I eat them for lunch!


Ms. Katz avoids negative terms like “mutant” and “abnormal,” but doesn’t deny that being visibly different is to stand out – such as the brown panda, blue lobster, and pink grasshopper. “Children learn that differences are everywhere - and something to celebrate!”

Please support RARE IS EVERYWHERE by purchasing a book or making any donation. Thank you!

A version of this post appeared 10/31/16 at Rare Disease Reports

Prenatal Genetic Testing of Pap Smears

November 2, 2016

Tags: prenatal diagnosis

Anthony Weiner and Woody Allen have the same favorite organ; mine is the placenta.

The amazing placenta literally links generations, and if findings reported in the new Science Translational Medicine are validated, prenatal genetic screening and testing may become possible using Pap smears – as early as 5 weeks after conception. (more…)

How the Pangolin Got Its Scales – A Genetic Just-So Story

October 19, 2016

Tags: pangolin, genome

Everyone loves animal oddities.

Darwin and Lamarck pondered the advantages of the giraffe’s long legs and neck, while a few decades later Rudyard Kipling explained how the leopard got its spots. Today genome sequencing is fleshing out what we thought we knew about some distinctive animal adaptations, from the giraffe to the leopard.

Adaptations are inherited traits that increase the likelihood of an individual surviving to reproduce. A zebra's stripes rendering it invisible when it runs and the fennec fox's giant ears that dissipate heat and hear distant predators are adaptations.

A report in this month’s Genome Research provides the basis for a “just-so story” about how the pangolin – aka the scaly anteater -- got its scales. They protect, but in a way beyond the obvious. According to the genome, the armor of the pangolin replaced part of its immune response.
(more…)

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
An ideal starting point for anyone who wants to know more about genes, DNA, genomes, and the genetic ties that bind us all.

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