April 12, 2012

WEIRD SCIENCE: A Taste of Eve’s Apple

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The goal seems simple: live forever. Exercise, eat right, sleep nine hours each night and when all else fails, there is health care. Ever since the character, Thirteen, in Fox’s House refused to get tested or Huntington’s disease, I have been more attuned to the change in attitude of modern health care.

Growing up, the picture seemed black and white. The more scientists know, the more medicine they could make, the longer people can live, and the happier people will be.

Every year, the Racker Lecture series is hosted by the Cornell University’s Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. Last semester, 2004 Nobel Prize Winner, Dr. Aaron Ciehanover spoke. It was an amazing opportunity to hear about science beyond what we have to learn for the next prelim, and yet, I still got ready by reviewing material on his material on ubiquitin, a regulatory protein that tags damaged proteins for recycling.

However, he wasn’t there to teach us cell biology. As a matter of fact, he didn’t want to discuss ubiquitin at all. Instead, he spent the hour criticizing modern medicine.

Modern medicine, today, is evolving. It’s becoming more personalized. The scientific community no longer only cares for your height and body weight. With the revolution of biotechnology and genetics, doctors are developing ways to distinguish you by the nucleotide base pairs in your DNA.

Dr. Ciehanover gave us a scenario. In 1990, Dr. Mary-Clair King demonstrated that a single gene on our 17th Chromosome, BRCA-1 was a breast and ovarian tumor suppressor. When a person has a mutant of this gene, or the more newly found BRCA-2 gene, an individual’s risk of breast or ovarian cancer increases by about 48% according to the National Cancer Institute.

Several methods are now available for testing. However, imagine, a 55 year old woman takes a BRCA test and finds out she tested positive for both breast and ovarian cancer. To decrease her chances, however, she has the opportunity to remove her breasts and ovaries. Her children are already full grown so she doesn’t really need those parts. It may save her life, but can she tell her daughter, the beautiful bride to be, her test results?

There are a lot of complications that come with genetic testing hitting the mainstream market. Employer and insurance confidentiality is key, and genetic counselors will be the jobs of the future.

Situations such as the analogy above will be commonplace. The general public could evolve to see themselves and their children differently. We already know life is a ticking bomb of mutated proteins or genes waiting to be transcribed, but do we want to know the likelihoods of when the moment will occur.

Better yet, if we are given the chance to live longer, how will we maintain the already exponentially growing world population? In addition, though designer babies seem to be something scientists are blatantly avoiding, parents are already karotyping their unborn children for chromosomal errors, why shouldn’t we be able to screen for other possible life-threating diseases?

Where can we draw the line?

At the end of the Lasker lecture, I went up to Dr. Ciehanover to ask if he had any ideas about how to control the scientific advancements. He laughed at me, as a colleague standing next to him replied that it was my job, as the new generation, to come up with solutions. No pressure.

Samantha Klasfeld is a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at sjk96@cornell.edu. The Missing Link: Weird Science appears on appears on Fridays.

Original Author: Samantha Klasfeld