DNA Mapping: A Road Less Traveled by HBCUs

Article excerpt

It is possible that in the very near future, a doctor

will be able to take a blood sample -- or even a piece

of toenail -- from a person and tell everything about

who they are biologically. This and other knowledge

about the genetic connection to disease is unfolding

everyday through the Human Genome Project

(HGP), a federally funded national research effort to

map the entire human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

The project started in the mid 1980s as a result

of work done by the Atomic Energy Commission

on the effects of radiation on the human body. The

study also looked into energy related technologies,

according to Dr. Dan Drell, a biologist in the

Department of Enery, which now heads the

research. Scientists at the National Institutes of

Health (NIH), believing that the research could

help pinpoint the genetic origins of disease, got

involved in the project also.

HGP is now a $3 billion, fifteen-year project

based at three national centers: The Lawrence

Berkeley Laboratory and The Lawrence

Livermore Laboratory in California, and The Los

Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. Research is

also being done at several smaller labs, at

non-profit agencies, at small businesses, and at

colleges and universities.

Approximately fifty universities and academic

centers nationwide are engaged in some phase of

the project. Internationally, there is a center in

Canada at the University of Alberta and the

Japanese have begun their own project.

The different

components include:

physical mapping,

sequencing,

instrumentation

development, infomatics

(computational biology),

and ELSI (Ethical, Legal

and Social Implications).

The Importance of HBCU Involvement

Morehouse School of

Medicine, the only

HBCU to have been

funded to participate in

the project did a study

from 1992 to 1994 on the

ethical implications of the

technologies arising from

genetic study. Howard

University is receiving

funds to collaborate with

and develop resources for

other investigators.

Howard is also receiving

funds through NIH to

develop its own genome

laboratory.

Dr. Ed Smith, professor

of animal generatics

in the College of Agriculture, Environmental

and Natural Science at Tuskegee University,

recently hosted a human genome conference which

centered around ELSI issues. One of the reasons

for the conference was to expose

Tuskegee genetics students to the scientists in the

genome centers and to get them participating in and

collaborating with some of the research.

"My lab is also trying to develop a

collaborative program with Stanford and other

academic centers because a spinoff of the

human genome project is that it is leading to

more understanding about animal genetics, too.

The techniques are the same," says Smith.

"We've struggled in this area" of

funding HBCUs to participate in

the project, says Drell, "because we

require applicants go through peer

review. But peer review is not as

much of a problem as it is that we

do not get many applications to

begin with."

Dr. Georgia Dunston, professor

of microbiology at the Howard

University College of Medicine,

notes, "We do have a scientific dilemma because

the way the HGP is designed, you have to have

had the infrastructure in place to toe competitive

for the kinds of projects that they wanted to

support and you are not likely to find an HBCU

with the research infrastructure to compete for

the centers. …