Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Local scientists join gene study




By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Sandra Engle and Ilona Ormsby microinject embryonic stem cells at UC's Cardiovascular Research Center.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        Greater Cincinnati scientists are joining a global knowledge hunt to use the new map of the human genetic code to understand the precise functions of all the estimated 50,000 genes.

        That understanding, experts say, will lead to better medicines, maybe even cures for once-untreatable conditions. Someday genetic screening tests might become widespread, allowing people to know at key moments in life their risks of developing all manner of diseases.

        The billions to be spent on genome-related lab research, technologies and treatments will accelerate a growing biotech industry that could transform regional, even national economies.

        How much of a role the University of Cincinnati will play in this effort remains to be seen, but officials already have invested millions to get into position.

AT A GLANCE
  • What happened?
  Two teams of scientists announced Monday they have completed a rough draft of the human genetic code — the basic blueprint of human life — in what is potentially one of history's greatest medical breakthroughs.
  • What does it mean?
  Experts predict the map will lead to many improved treatments for a wide range of diseases. However, some ethicists worry a Pandora's box has been opened.
  • Infographic: The human genome
  • Continuing coverage from Associated Press
        In fact, the race began years ago.

        “We're using some of (the results of the mapping proj ect) now,” said Jerry Lingrel, chairman of UC's department of molecular genetics “The sequences have been coming out a little bit at a time.”

        Researchers have known about some genetic links to disease long enough to begin human testing for some genetic therapies. University Hospital and Children's Hospital Medical Center have already started clinical trials of genetic therapies for cystic fibrosis and a common form of head and neck cancer with mixed success.

        Both institutions are busy working at a more basic level to breed genetically engineered mice, which serve as models to study treatments for human disease.

        Over more than 15 years, scientists have bred mice to reflect the function of about 4,000 of the estimated 50,000 human genes. With the gene-mapping project complete, work on the other 46,000 or so genes can move much faster, said UC molecular genetics professor Tom Doetschman.

LOTS OF PAPER
  Without using any headlines, photos or ads, it would take about three years and four months for the Enquirer to print the human genome code, assuming 75 pages a day, 150.5 column inches per page and 225 characters per column inch.
  The code includes 3.1 billion base pairs of DNA, typed out using just four letters: G, T, A and C.
        “Remember, we still don't know what most of the genes do. This increases our ability on a grand scale to ask broad, in-depth questions,” Dr. Doetschman said.

        Dr. Lyon Gleich, a UC head and neck cancer expert, is among the few researchers to enjoy even modest success with actual genetic therapy. More than 20 patients at UC have been among 70 patients nationwide with advanced head and neck cancers to receive an experimental genetic therapy injected into their tumors.

        In a small-scale “Phase II” trial, some patients have lived cancer-free up to two years, Dr. Gleich said. However, similar results must be achieved in larger-scale Phase III trials before the medication can reach the market.

Cures for diseases will take time
Genetic breakthrough poses ethical dilemmas



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