Campus News

Hughes Grant Allows Exploration of Human Genetics Issues

Story posted November 10, 2000

In September a Colorado girl received a transplant of cells from her newborn brother ó a brother born after doctors fertilized her motherís eggs in a lab and used genetic screening to implant only the embryo that appeared it would fulfill the transplant needs.

The Human Genome Project, initiated in 1989, and other scientific advances have made such arguments and questions a part of everyday news and not something in the realm of science fiction. Some say our knowledge of genetics will make the eradication of certain diseases and disorders possible. Others say itís only a step toward "designer babies." If we know how to manipulate genes, should we? And what are the ethical considerations of doing so?

Bowdoin College and the Foundation for Blood Research are sponsoring a series of symposiums to shed light on the complicated issues surrounding human genetics. The first is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, in Kresge Auditorium in Bowdoinís Visual Arts Center. The event is free and open to the public. For information call 725-3582.

The symposiums are made possible by a recent $800,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Bowdoin expects to host two symposiums a year for the next four years. The first will begin with a one-hour talk by David H. Ledbetter, chairman of the department of human genetics at the University of Chicago. He will speak on "New Genetic Technologies: What they are and what they mean for the public." After Ledbetter speaks, a panel of students and representatives from the Foundation for Blood Research will discuss two case studies related to the topics discussed by Ledbetter. Members of the audience will also be invited to ask questions and make comments on the issues. The case studies and additional information is available at http://academic.bowdoin.edu/bio/grants/hhmi/.

The symposium series is designed to inform students, faculty and the surrounding community about new genetic technologies and how they may affect our lives. The symposiums will look at social, ethical, legal and medical questions raised by our ever-increasing knowledge of human DNA.

Knowledge of genetics and the possibilities of gene therapy and genetic testing are sensitive issues on many levels. They are also issues of particular interest to students of college age, who are approaching the years in which they will have and raise children, said William Steinhart, a Bowdoin biology professor helping to organize the symposiums. Steinhart sees enrollment in a course he is teaching as evidence of college studentsí interest in genetics issues. This is the first year that a genetics course is being offered to non-science majors and 63 students, many of them first-years and sophomores, have enrolled.

Issues in genetics are divisive on personal as well as moral levels. Aside from any moral argument, people have very different and very personal feelings about what they want to know about themselves, Steinhart said. Some would like to know of a genetic predisposition to a life-altering or -threatening condition so they can prepare, others would rather live their lives without the influence of such knowledge. Even within families there can be disagreements, because once one person learns something about their genetic predisposition, it implies certain things about their parents, siblings and other relatives.

Organizers of the symposium series hope to give students, faculty, staff and members of local communities a greater understanding of the experiences of health care providers and families deal with medical genetics, the variety of affects genetics can have on family life and the social issues of significance to the family and community.

David H. Ledbetter
Ledbetter has been on the faculty of the University of Chicago since 1996 and is also a certified clinical cytogeneticist. He has been involved in the Human Genome Project and is leading authority in genetic technology development for diagnostic testing.
He graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University and earned his doctorate from the University of Texas, Austin. He has held posts at Baylor College of Medicine, the European School of Medical Genetics, the National Institute of Health and the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

Foundation for Blood Research
This is a nonprofit agency in South Portland involved in applied medical research. It works to develop new and improved ways to prevent, detect, and manage illness. FBR provides clinical genetics services and provides education for doctors, teachers, students and the general public.
Dr. Rhonda Spiro and Ms Dale Lea, of the Foundation for Blood Research are involved in planning topics and choosing speakers for the symposiums.

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