Magazine article The Christian Century

Genome Chief: On Awe and Imperfect Beings. (News)

Magazine article The Christian Century

Genome Chief: On Awe and Imperfect Beings. (News)

Article excerpt

Physician-geneticist Francis Collins believes in original sin--at least on the biological level. "There are no perfect human specimens at the DNA level," said Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research institute. "We are all walking around with a significant number of misspellings [in our DNA]."

Most people have some 40 to 50 glitches in their DNA, according to Collins, who oversees the Human Genome Project, a group of 20 research centers in six countries that published a draft of the human genome in February 2001. And most of the glitches never cause any problems, said Collins. But a glitch in the wrong place or exposed to the wrong environment can be fatal.

Collins spoke in Chicago last month to the annual convention of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, to which the doctor belongs. For the first time ever, human beings are able to understand the genome--"our God-given instruction book," he said. "It has been a wonderful privilege to be able to unravel the mystery of God's creation, to see things that humans have never seen before and that God knew all along."

The most amazing part of the genome is its simplicity, said Collins. All the information is encoded in a simple alphabet of four letters--A, C, G and T (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine)--which spell out the 3 billion-character-long genome. "What still seems astounding to me," said Collins, "is that one of those letters out of place in the wrong spot can cause a terrible disease. One out of 3 billion."

Collins called the genome project "a bright light we can shine into the darkness of our ignorance about almost every disease," and predicted that within five to seven years, scientist will discover the genes responsible for ailments like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and heart disease. He argued that most of those ailments will be treated with pharmogenetics--drugs designed to address specific genes or DNA misspellings.

One such drug, Gloevec, is used in clinical trials to treat chronic myeloid leukemia by targeting an abnormal protein that binds to a gene. Collins said the drug has proved more than 95 percent effective in treating patients "who had few options and were pretty close to the end."

While the advances in understanding hold promise for treating people, problems exist. Most new techniques are expensive and may not be available to all people. And genetic information may be used to discriminate against people with increased risk factors and who may have their health insurance canceled or lose their jobs. …

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