Examining the secret of life

July 1, 2003
In 1964, in a college classroom, my attention was suddenly diverted from the latest James Bond paperback hidden in my zoology textbook to Professor Fanny-Fern Davis
message: DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, and youd best know how to spell it on your final. This would not be the last time I heard her demand. I repeated her zoology class twice more to learn how to spell that word on my examination, a word easily abbreviated as DNA. Now, I could spell
Despite my difficulty in spelling an interminably lengthy scientific word, and despite my repeated failures in passing her course, somehow Dr. Davis pure enthusiasm for science and her inquisitiveness about all that DNA stuff eventually made its impact on me. Her love of learning had made its mark. James Bond was relegated to the bottom shelf, and I began to make the Deans List.In 1990 when I left private industry to teach in a rural Tennessee college classroom (where my final exams measured knowledge and not bad spelling), Ian Lloyd, a member of Parliament speaking in the House of Commons, predicted the impact of genetics. When the full map of the human genome is known, he said, we shall have passed through a phase of human civilization as significant as, if not more significant than, that which distinguished the age of Galileo from that of Copernicus, or that of Einstein from that of Newton. (By now, I actually knew who these fellows were and what theyd contributed!) We have crossed a boundary of unprecedented importance, Lloyd pointed out. There is no going back. We are walking hopefully into the scientific foothills of a gigantic mountain range.From the discovery of DNA and source of the genetic code to the completion of sequencing the human genome in 2001 to now ferreting out how all genetic code actually works, the scientific community is propelled in the same way as the U.S.S. Enterprise to go where no man has gone before. This journey to places human knowledge has never been before means scientists just as the Enterprise did in space will get there first. Meanwhile, those of us working as or with laboratorians, scientists and product manufacturers are breathlessly riding shotgun, using our workplaces as classrooms to learn on a daily basis about the rapid advances being made in the field of genetics.Dr. Fanny-Fern would likely be pleased all these years later to find me penning a brief commentary on the gene-based research and tests that are emerging from scientists and chemists around the globe. This months cover story by an NIU professor emeritus describes in snapshots the importance of identifying the molecular basis for insulin action on target tissues. In the Clinical Issues feature, two medical directors from the Nichols Institutes genetics program outline the inheritable diseases for which gene-based testing is already available and what is coming in the way of clinical applications. Our Expert Opinion interview highlights a conversation with the chairman and CEO of a major player in biotechnology, Digene Corp. The results of its development of a DNAwithPap test means that, suddenly, an entirely new way of screening for cervical cancer is available for at-risk women who have, until recently, relied on the Pap test alone. These three perspectives on genetics are the readers classroom. And, by the way, this months CE test requires no spelling skills.As for the scientific foothills of Ian Lloyds gigantic genetic mountain range? The exam, the final grade and the graduation will not be happening for a long time to come.Carren Bersch
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