Exploring the Gene Myth

The following post is the first in our series of entries submitted for the 1st Annual Lions Talk Science Blog Award. This piece is by Lina Jamis, a student in the Anatomy Graduate Program.

Image credit: FDA (Wikimedia Commons)

Image credit: FDA (Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers who study genetic interactions—of which there are thousands currently under study and billions more to be studied—often find themselves trying to explain their field to non-technical audiences.

And if there’s anything I’ve learned as a student who has taken various levels of human genetics as an undergraduate and now at the graduate level, it’s that the average person has many preconceived notions about genetics that are mostly inaccurate, if not altogether wrong. These misconceptions are often perpetrated and perpetuated by our educational systems and media that aim to simplify a field that is intrinsically un-simple.

There are few absolute truths when it comes to human genetics. Absolutely, there are disease genes, but there are also modifiers of disease genes, and modifiers of modifiers of disease genes. It goes on. Incomplete penetrance, genetic heterogeneity, pleiotropy, and gene-environment interactions—these are just some of the factors that make studies of relatively simple-seeming genetic diseases extremely challenging.

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The War on Cancer: Targeted Therapy

By: Ross Keller, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

Glivec_400mg (1)In an earlier post, I outlined a potential roadmap for the War on Cancer. I stated that in order to win, we need to define the genetic components of a specific cancer and design treatments based on that component. This is called targeted therapy, and it has actually already been used with success in some cancers, including certain types of leukemia, lung cancer, breast cancer, and melanoma. But what makes a good targeted therapy?

The hallmarks of a good targeted therapy are: specificity, potency, and ability to keep a cancer from relapsing. The best targeted therapies will kill cancer cells only and will do it efficiently so a resistant tumor does not occur following treatment.

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How Can We Win the War on Cancer?

By: Ross Keller, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

Lung cancer cell division, SEMIn 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, which later became known as the beginning of the “War on Cancer.” Now, 42 years later, are we any closer to winning the war?

To answer this question, we need to explore what cancer is.

Cancer is described as the uncontrolled growth of our own cells. Normally, cells have a designated number of times then can divide and are genetically programmed when to do so. But when certain genes become “broken” via a mutation, which is a change in the DNA blueprints, the cell is free to divide unchecked.

Interestingly, mutations happen all the time in our cells. There are billions of possible mutations in our genome—but there are also billions and billions of cells. So, why is cancer, overall, rare?

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DNA and Epigenetics: Understanding the Blueprint of Life (Part 2)

By: Patrick Brown, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

miceIn Part I of my discussion of DNA and epigenetics, I described how DNA is first converted into mRNA via transcription, then mRNA is translated into protein. Once proteins are made from this genetic code, they can begin doing work in cells.

I ended the last article with the question: how does the body choose which genes are expressed in which cells? Here I will discuss the concept of epigenetics and its role in shaping protein expression.

We can see the effects of epigenetics all around us. Many proteins are expressed differently between males and females – these proteins are under epigenetic control. If epigenetic marks are abnormal, then certain cancers become more prevalent. The most visible difference in epigenetic marks is seen in the coat color of the agouti mouse. Each mouse pictured (above) is genetically identical, but contains different amounts of a specific epigenetic mark. How can they have the same genes, but have different coat colors? Continue reading

DNA and Epigenetics: Understanding the Blueprint of Life

By: Patrick Brown, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

DNA StrandsDue to hit shows like CSI and The Big Bang Theory as well as an increase in news reporting, there is a growing interest in the various fields of biological science. As a scientist, I encourage everyone to learn more about the processes and molecules that make life possible. Unfortunately, it can be a daunting task for someone unfamiliar with science jargon to get simple questions answered or learn more about a topic of interest to them. So where to begin? Let’s start with the building block of life: DNA. Continue reading