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The World Is Changing - with DNA
IMM,,By Rob Cahill
The world changed on Feb. 28, 1953, when Francis Crick walked into an English pub and announced that he and James Watson had discovered “the secret of life.” No idle boast, the two had figured out the structure of a molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, that passes hereditary information from one generation to the next and runs the world of the cell.
Ten years later and fresh out of medical school, C. Thomas Caskey, M.D., saw that “times were a’ changing” and launched a career in genetics that led to the discovery of genes for obesity, myotonic dystrophy, fragile x, colon cancer and macular degeneration; executive positions in medical research organizations; and honors including the Distinguished Texas Geneticist Award.
Caskey, now director- and CEO-elect and chief operating officer of The Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, reflected on six decades of DNA research in a lecture titled “What Is Molecular Medicine?” in the Beth Robertson Auditorium of the Fayez S. Sarofim Research Building.
It was the first of four talks by IMM senior faculty, presented by the Houston Seminar lecture series, now in its 30th year. (For reports on talks by Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., and Paul J. Simmons, Ph.D., see the April 2 and May 7 issues of The Leader Update.)
The many advances since the double helix discovery by Watson and Crick, according to Caskey, include: unearthing the genetic code, which consists of rules governing the translation of genetic information into proteins; recombinant DNA techniques that allow researchers to cut, copy and paste DNA; the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project, which determined the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs making up human DNA; progress in DNA sequencing, the process of determining the order of nucleotides (chemical compounds that make up DNA) in a given DNA fragment.
“Before the Human Genome Project, it would be a good year if we could identify the genes responsible for 50 diseases,” Caskey said. “Now we can identify 50 disease-causing genes in a month.”
Molecular medicine already has had a big impact on health care, and Caskey predicts an even bigger impact in the future. Knowing a patient’s genetic predisposition, he said, will be an important part of treatment plans. For example, IMM molecular scientists are already working with heart specialists to develop treatment paths for those at risk of cardiovascular disease.
“We want to take the population at risk, identify who needs attention and implement treatments for the different cardiac risk conditions,” he said.
DNA fingerprinting is another example of what Caskey called the “promise realized” in terms of genetic research. Much like English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had body doubles as a security precaution. Nevertheless, when U.S. forces apprehended Hussein on Dec. 13, 2003, they were able to positively identify him using DNA technology.
“DNA sets the innocent free and puts the bad guys in jail,” Caskey said. His fingerprinting technology is used worldwide.
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