Forensic Phenotyping: What DNA Can (and Cannot) Tell Us About a Criminal’s Appearance.

DNA in a test tubeAll Points Bulletin: Wanted for Murder: A Redheaded, Blue-Eyed, Left-Handed Smoker Who Likes to Ski, Has an Elevated Risk of Cancer, Is Allergic to Cashews, and Has a Birthmark the Shape of Wisconsin

OK, the thought of issuing such a specific physical description of a suspect seems ridiculous to us now, but can we expect to see such specific descriptions of alleged criminals in the future?

A new field of forensic DNA analysis, forensic phenotyping, is emerging, and it is raising some good questions. How much information can or should forensic analysts glean from someone’s DNA, and how much of that should be made public?
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A Few Thoughts about Ethics

Entry 7 from One Reader’s Journey through the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Before he was done, cancer researcher Chester Southam had injected HeLa cells (and other cancer-derived cells) into more than six hundred people in the name of “research”.  Half of them were cancer patients. Very few of them, except those who were incarcerated gave consent for the research. He injected cancer cells into every gynecologic surgery patient who had the misfortune of stumbling his way.  Rebecca Skloot aptly titles chapter talking about this research “illegal, immoral and deplorable”. 

Since that time grant funding agencies have study sections made up of scientific peers to review grants not only for their scientific rigor, but for their ethics as well. Research institutions have Internal Review Boards that include members from the community to approve all animal and human subjects research. And, journals have peer review and ethical standards for all research. We have come a long way, but it never hurts to remind ourselves of the past and remember the lessons. Continue reading

One Reader’s Journey through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (5)

It’s been a while since I have pre-ordered a book and waited expectantly for its arrival. Ever since reading the first reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on several Science Blogs sites, I have been itching to read this book for myself.

So, when I drove home and saw the boot prints in the snow leading to the front porch, I knew the awaited tome had finally arrived. I began my journey, guided by the able pen of Skloot, through the life of Henrietta Lacks and the incredible story of her tumor cells, first introduced to me as HeLa cells when I was a college student. At that time there was virtually no acknowledgment of the fact that these cells, a staple of cell biology research and teaching, originally came from a person, a mother, a wife, a daughter.

These blog entries will not attempt to be a review of Skloot’s book; more experienced book critics have done that and done it well. Instead, here is my reaction to the book “journaled” as I read—my thoughts and questions as a scientist, a writer, a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a member of the human race.

Entry 7 March 23, 2010 A Few Thoughts about Ethics
In A Few Thoughts about Ethics, I discuss my response to Skloot’s chapter about the work of Chester Southam.

Entry 6 March 15, 2010

Then, in 1953, a geneticist in Texas accidentally mixed the wrong liquid with HeLa and a few other cells, and it turned out to be a fortunate mistake. The chromosomes inside the cells swelled and spread out, and for the first time, scientists could see each of them clearly. —Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Okay, Ms. Skloot, no fair teasing a geneticist reader like that. Who was the scientist in Texas? What was the wrong liquid? How long did it take for the scientist to realize he had launched the entire field of cytogenetics with his mistake? This inquiring mind wants to know. Continue reading

One Reader’s Journey through the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (4)

It’s been a while since I have pre-ordered a book and waited expectantly for its arrival. Ever since reading the first reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on several Science Blogs sites, I have been itching to read this book for myself.

So, when I drove home and saw the boot prints in the snow leading to the front porch, I knew the awaited tome had finally arrived. I began my journey, guided by the able pen of Skloot, through the life of Henrietta Lacks and the incredible story of her tumor cells, first introduced to me as HeLa cells when I was a college student. At that time there was virtually no acknowledgment of the fact that these cells, a staple of cell biology research and teaching, originally came from a person, a mother, a wife, a daughter.

These blog entries will not attempt to be a review of Skloot’s book; more experienced book critics have done that and done it well. Instead, here is my reaction to the book “journaled” as I read—my thoughts and questions as a scientist, a writer, a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a member of the human race.

Entry 4 February 25, 2010

As Rebecca Skloot describes her attempts to contact the Lacks family to learn Henrietta’s story, I suddenly feel like I am reading a mystery novel. No one is talking. Skloot ends up in the same Baltimore hotel, staring at the same B-R-O-M-O-S-E-L-T-Z-E-R sign as a journalist had 23 years earlier when he contacted the Lacks family for a Rolling Stone article about Henrietta. The scene is surreal film noir, a private detective alone on the road trying to find answers to questions only to keep running into dead ends. Continue reading

One Reader’s Journey through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (3)

It’s been a while since I have pre-ordered a book and waited expectantly for its arrival. Ever since reading the first reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on several Science Blogs sites, I have been itching to read this book for myself.

So, when I drove home and saw the boot prints in the snow leading to the front porch, I knew the awaited tome had finally arrived. I began my journey, guided by the able pen of Skloot, through the life of Henrietta Lacks and the incredible story of her tumor cells, first introduced to me as HeLa cells when I was a college student. At that time there was virtually no acknowledgment of the fact that these cells, a staple of cell biology research and teaching, originally came from a person, a mother, a wife, a daughter.

These blog entries will not attempt to be a review of Skloot’s book; more experienced book critics have done that and done it well. Instead, here is my reaction to the book “journaled” as I read—my thoughts and questions as a scientist, a writer, a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a member of the human race.

Entry 3 February 17, 2010
As I read I am struck by contrasts, and perhaps that is what Skloot intended. Continue reading

One Reader’s Journey through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It’s been a while since I have pre-ordered a book and waited expectantly for its arrival. Ever since reading the first reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on several Science Blogs sites, I have been itching to read this book for myself.

So, when I drove home Tuesday night and saw the boot prints in the snow leading to the front porch, I knew the awaited tome had finally arrived. And so, I began my journey, guided by the able pen of Skloot, through the life of Henrietta Lacks and the incredible story of her tumor cells, first introduced to me as HeLa cells when I was a college student. At that time there was virtually no acknowledgment of the fact that these cells, a staple of cell biology research and teaching, originally came from a person, a mother, a wife, a daughter.

These blog entries will not attempt to be a review of Skloot’s book; more experienced book critics have done that and done it well. Instead, here is my reaction to the book “journaled” as I read—my thoughts and questions as a scientist, a writer, a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a member of the human race.

Entry 2 February 8, 2010

First Point Henrietta wasn’t the only person whose tissue was taken without her consent. Continue reading

Science Is a Human Endeavor

Toward the end of my graduate studies, when I was itching to wrap up experiments and start writing, I did something radical. I signed up for a lay chaplaincy program, sort of a mini-clinical pastoral education (CPE) program, offered at that time through the university hospital.

I was reminded of this experience recently when I read an incredible blog, “Fountain Pens”, which, with its 260 well chosen words, threw me back to thinking hard about the relationship between science and humanity.

At the time I began the CPE program, I was really struggling, not sure whether I wanted to stick out the Ph.D. program to the bloody end (and it felt pretty bloody at that point).

Yes, I had devoted several years of my life to nematode husbandry. Yes, I had acquired a significant intellectual repository of information about worm sperm that would be largely useless outside of academia. Yes, I had suffered through and survived written and oral comprehensive exams. And yes, I was seriously considering leaving this huge investment of time and life behind me.

I had lost sight of what I had invested in. Continue reading

A Discussion about Sustainability at the International BioEthics Forum

Leaf image What does sustainability mean? Is it composting your vegetable scraps and yard waste, and capturing rain water? Is it community-based action on policies dealing with land and water use? Is it educating our children about ecology and the connectedness of all flora and fauna in our biosphere? Is it bringing together religious leaders, scientists, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, educators, students and the public on a discussion of sustainability? On April 23 and 24, the 8th Annual International BioEthics Forum on Sustainability did just that, hosting a diverse group of people from many different perspectives to answer the question “what does sustainability mean?” Continue reading

Bioethics Forum: Sustainability

Everytime we enter a grocery store we are offered the chance to buy reusable, environmentally responsible grocery bags. “Go Green” is an oft quoted phrase, and almost every business in every industry is touting its “green” initiatives.

The 8th Annual International Bioethics Forum in Madison, WI, takes on the topic of sustainability. Continue reading

Science, History and Identity

brca1One of my jobs at Promega is to coordinate our Educational Resources Web, so I am constantly on the prowl for interesting stories that will provide fodder for a bioethics discussion, a writing assignment or a case study. Science does not exist in a vacuum, and including information that puts science in the midst of its societal context is an important part of science education. Continue reading