Monday, May 23, 2016

GENETICS - "The Gene"

"Our long and winding road to understanding 'The Gene'" PBS NewsHour 5/19/2016


SUMMARY:  The field of genetics has seen exponential growth in recent years, and today may be on the verge of further breakthroughs that will radically change the way we function as a species.  But to understand genetics now, one must first understand its complex past dating back to the 19th century, a past chronicled in Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee's new book “The Gene.” Mukherjee joins Judy Woodruff for more.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  It seems as if there are important breakthroughs each year in the field of genetics and medicine.  In many ways, we indeed could be on the verge of historical changes in how we use DNA and how we edit our biological code.

But the moment can be deceptive.  The history of genetics is long and complicated, dating back to the mid-19th century.  It's full of exciting discoveries, endless mysteries and, even nefarious intent.

That's the ambitious scope of a new book, “The Gene: An Intimate History.”  Its author is Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University.  He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.”

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, welcome to the “NewsHour” again.

DR. SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE, Author, “The Gene:  An Intimate History”: Pleasure to be here.  Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, an intimate history within what?  Just a short time after you have come out with this award-winning book on cancer, you tackle an arguably more complicated subject, the gene, and there is a personal connection.  Explain that.

DR. SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE:  Well, this book took actually a long time to write.  It was — it took six years to write this book.

And the book gets intimate right from the first page.  The story opens really with an exploration that was in the back of my mind where I — as I was growing up.  It was about my family's mental illness, two uncles consumed by schizophrenia and bipolar disease, and then, one generation later, another, so, on the same side of the family, also diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, and the growing realization in my mind as a child that this wasn't — there was some heredity lurking, that genes were lurking behind mental illness, and that coming to fullness as I started to study medicine and realize that there was a genetic core to all of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  You sense, in reading this book, that there is an urgency to this, that you felt it was important to get this done now.  Why?

DR. SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE:  It's important to get this done now because we are at the — on the verge of unveiling or discovering and inventing astonishing new technologies that allow us to read and write human genomes.

And let me explain what I mean.  By read, I mean we can now begin to scan the human genome, your genome, mine, all the genes that you and I have, and ask questions about what it predicts for us in the future.

The technology is far from accurate, but, for instance, the risk of breast cancer may be present in a variation in your genome.  And by write, I mean something even more strange, which is that, lately — and this has been widely covered, but, lately, we have been able to — scientists have been able to go into the human genome and make intentional alterations, erase genes, change genes, change their content, et cetera.

That's a surprising thing to do and portends a very, very complex landscape for the future.

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