Genetics Hottest Story, Scientific Community Says

Article excerpt

There is an old saying: Science advances, funeral by funeral.

These days, however, science is advancing gene by gene.

Developments that spin from advanced genetics research, such as

cloning or tests that determine cancer risks, promise to be

among top national medical science stories this year.

That was the conclusion of people who attended a recent six-day

conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the American Association

for the Advancement of Science.

There are, of course, a multitude of other medical science

stories on the horizon, ranging from the pursuit of an AIDS

vaccine to whether sunscreen is effective in preventing skin

cancer.

But much of the attention of more than 5,400 scientists,

educators and journalists was focused on genetics-related

research and the hope that it will lead to the prevention or

cure of cancer and other hard-to-conquer diseases.

"I'd say that [genetics] is the driving story" in medical

science right now, said Arthur L. Caplan, the director of the

University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics and a speaker

at the conference last weekend.

NEW RESEARCH

To understand the importance of genetics research, it helps to

know some background: Humans are made up of microscopic cells.

In the middle of each cell is a twisted, ladder-shaped double

molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid -- DNA.

DNA carries the genetic code: the blueprints that dictate the

activities of cells and, as a result, the development and

function of the body.

Throughout the 1990s, researchers in 18 countries have been

trying to map the genetic blueprint for humans and smaller

organisms, like bacteria, and to figure out how to use that

information to fight or prevent disease.

"It's just a tremendous undertaking," said Jeff Goldhagen,

director of the Duval County health department in Jacksonville.

"This will transform medicine and how we deal with human

diseases."

He added, "The only equivalent that people could relate it to

is going to the moon, but this is much more dramatic. Going to

the moon was a mechanical sort of thing."

Gene therapy is an example of how medical treatment could

eventually change.

In gene therapy, scientists use a virus to carry DNA into the

body. The virus acts as a car, driving the passenger DNA to

problem cells. The virus infects the problem cells, releasing

the DNA, which issues new orders to the problem cells, changing

them in a way that stops disease.

The University of Florida and many other research institutions

have been working on gene therapy for years, said Terence

Flotte, co-director of UF's gene therapy center.

UF researchers think they have seen promising results in animal

studies using gene therapy against retinal disorders. They are

two years into a collaborative study with Johns Hopkins

University in using gene therapy on human patients with cystic

fibrosis.

Though there might be successes in animal or human clinical

trials, it probably will be several years before gene therapy

reaches the point that it becomes a treatment offered to

patients, Flotte and others said.

"While not all of it [the research] will be successful, I would

keep my eye on gene therapy in '98," said Thomas Murray, who

chairs the genetics subcommittee of the President's National

Bioethics Advisory Commission. …