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
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.
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
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
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
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. …