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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

Eliza Gets Her Gene Therapy!

May 25, 2016

Tags: gene therapy, Eliza O'Neill, Sanfilippo syndrome

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Keeping a little girl at home for 722 days may seem cruel, but for the O’Neill family, it was a demonstration of astonishing bravery and love.

Glenn and Cara O’Neill had isolated their daughter Eliza to protect her from viral infection – which could have disqualified her from receiving gene therapy for Sanfilippo syndrome type A (aka mucopolysaccharidosis Type IIIA or MPS IIIA). Last week, she became patient #1 in Abeona Therapeutics' phase 1/2 clinical trial. (more…)

How Kevin Spacey is Altering Our Genes

April 24, 2016

Tags: House of Cards, high-fructose corn syrup alters genes, Kevin Spacey, gene expression

Ridiculous headline? It’s just about as ridiculous as the one that circulated the Internet last week, parroting a genetically-ignorant news release from UCLA.

Here’s the headline, this one from Science Daily: “Fructose alters hundreds of brain genes, which can lead to a wide range of diseases.”

Imagine that. I can bite into a peach and jumpstart genetic chaos. I can give myself diseases with a frappuccino. Would a jolt of the high-fructose-corn-syrup variety kill me?

The good news is that apparently a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reverse the rampant brain damage wrought by the evil sugar. The bad news is that the study was performed on 24 rats, counting the controls. And, of course, the science isn’t at all what the news release says it is. (more…)

No Pain and Extreme Pain From One Gene

April 21, 2016

Tags: pain, sodium channel, SCN9A

Sensory neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells from patients with "burning man syndrome"
The family from northern Pakistan is one of the strangest to appear in the scientific literature. At its center is a 10-year-old, a street performer who walked on hot coals and inserted daggers through his arms before astonished crowds – feeling absolutely no pain. He died at age 13 from jumping off of a roof, considering himself impervious to all injury.

I’ve included this story in my textbooks for so long that I recently began to wonder if I’d been perpetuating an urban legend. Then a study in this week’s Science Translational Medicine led me back to the Pakistani boy. He was real. And it turns out that different mutations in the same gene can cause complete absence of pain, or attacks of pain so severe that sufferers compare the sensation to dipping one’s feet into hot lava. In these extremes lie clues to developing new painkillers. (more…)

Second Gene Therapy Nears Approval in Europe: Lessons for CRISPR?

April 20, 2016

Tags: gene therapy, ADA deficiency, bubble boy

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing has been around not even 4 years, and people are avidly discussing its promises and perils. That’s great. But consider the historical backdrop.

April 1, the European Medicine Agency’s (EMA) Committee for Medicinal Products recommended for marketing approval a second gene therapy. “Strimvelis” treats adenosine deaminase severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome (ADA-SCID) and was developed at the San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy in Milan and GlaxoSmithKline. Regulatory approval is expected within a few months.

I wonder how many people realize, especially those fearful of how gene editing might be misused, that the gene therapy that is nearing approval actually entered clinical trials 26 years ago? (more…)

Redhead Gene Doubles Melanoma Risk, Without Sun

April 20, 2016

Tags: melanoma, MC1R, redhead

Variants of the melanocortin-1-receptor (MC1R) gene impart the red hair, fair skin, and freckles of a Prince Harry or Wilma Flintstone – and also poorer protection against ultraviolet (UV) radiation and therefore higher risk of developing skin cancers, including melanoma. But a new study published in JAMA Dermatology reveals that MC1R genotype alone more than doubles the risk of melanoma.

The Ginger Gene
Many colorful creatures owe their distinctive phenotypes to MC1R variants, from red pandas and ruffed lemurs, to Golden retrievers and brown cavefish and Kuzakh fat-rumped sheep. Orangutans are an exception – their hue arises from a different gene. (more…)

Gorilla Genome 2.0: Lessons for the Clinic?

April 6, 2016

Tags: gorilla genome

Susie lives at the Lincoln Park Zoo, in Chicago
The unveiling of a new and improved gorilla genome sequence isn’t a “first,” but the differences between it and gorGor3, from 2012, echo clinical situations that can arise when genetic information is incomplete.

First, the gorilla news.

(more…)

Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genome 3.0 Evokes Classic Experiments

March 31, 2016

Tags: synthetic biology, synthetic genome, J. Craig Venter

Is a synthetic genome new life?
J. Craig Venter and his colleagues at Synthetic Genomics Inc update their efforts to create a “hypothetical minimal genome" in Science.

“JCVI-syn3.0,” or syn3.0 for short, is about 531,000 DNA base pairs organized into 473 genes, serially transplanted into cells of the tiny and fast-replicating Mycoplasma mycoides and M. capricolum. The first iteration of the smallest synthetic genome, JVCI-syn1.0, has just over a million base pairs, and the intermediate JCVI-syn2.0 has 576,000.

While syn3.0 will serve as a foundation for future synthetic biology, it reminds me of two favorite experiments from more than half a century ago. (more…)

From Denisovan DNA to Future Humanity

March 27, 2016

Tags: Denisovan, Neanderthal DNA, human evolution

Svante Pääbo and an old friend
The idea that the genomes of those of us without African ancestry harbor some DNA from Neanderthals has inspired cartoons and jokes, and I got a lot of flak when I wrote about the discovery of diabetes risk genes from Neanderthals in Mexicans. Apparently Neanderthals admixed themselves into European and East Asian populations at least three times.

A new paper in Science from Svante Pääbo, director of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and his colleagues, indicates that we have more to learn from the parts of our genomes that don’t have remnants from the Neanderthals and the less familiar Denisovans. We share a common ancestor with them from about a million years ago. (more…)

Genetic Counselors Best to Interpret DTC Genetic Tests

March 13, 2016

Tags: genetic counseling, direct-to-consumer genetic tests, 23andMe, Pathway Genomics

Genetic counselors know more about genetic testing than other health care professionals.
Can health care providers adequately explain results from direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA tests to patients? “Consumer Perceptions of Interactions With Primary Care Providers After Direct-to-Consumer Personal Genomic Testing,” a study published March 1, suggests a disconnect between what consumers expect and what their doctors can deliver.

(more…)

CRISPR Clarifies Split-Hand/Foot

February 18, 2016

Tags: split hand/foot, CRISPR, genome editing, bioethics

A mother and two daughters who have "lobster claw deformity."
While James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, calls genome editing a "national security threat", bioethicists warn of CRISPR-created superbabies, and prominent researchers argue whether patents trump papers, I prefer to quietly look at applications of the technology that aren’t dramatic enough to enter the endless news cycle, but elegantly reveal the power of the technology. (more…)

Selected Works

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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