Learning about the Human Genome Project at SU, 1990s


By Carson Vogel

With the introduction of the Brown Symposium lecture series in 1978, Southwestern University continued to expand its education of a broad range of topics. Through the endowment of the Brown Foundation Inc., the Brown Symposium brings scientists, scholars, artists, and other individuals to Southwestern to present their ideas and work to students, faculty, and the public.[1] One notable Brown Symposium was the Twentieth Brown Symposium in 1998, titled “The Human Genome Project: Advances, Repercussions and Challenges.”[2] At that symposium, seven lectures were presented to give the attendees a better understanding and appreciation of the project.

The Human Genome Project (HGP) began in 1990 and was an international, collaborative research program to completely map and understand all the genes in human beings, known as the human “genome.”[3] Since the project was expected to be completed in 2005, the 1998 symposium provided a great opportunity to discuss past, current and future work on the project. As the chairperson for the Twentieth Brown Symposium, Dr. Vicente Villa, (Professor of Biology at Southwestern University) organized the event and selected four pioneers in genetics to speak: Dr. Nancy Wexler, (Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology at the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and President of the Hereditary Disease Foundation); Dr. Leroy Hood, (Founder and Chairman for the Department of Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington); Dr. C. Thomas Caskey, (Senior Vice President for Research at Merck Research Laboratories); and Dr. Susan Henry, (Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell University).[4] Over two days, they presented attendees with different ideas regarding the work and implications of the HGP.

Dr. Wexler gave the opening and the closing lectures. During her opening lecture “Venezuela to Victory,” she discussed how she began researching Huntington’s Disease in 1979 because she had multiple family members with the disease. Hoping to discover the gene for the disease and eventually a cure, she assembled a group called the Huntington’s Disease Collaborative Research Group. They examined the blood of a large family in Venezuela with many members who had Huntington’s to find any commonalities in their DNA. After three years, they found a marker close to the Huntington’s gene on chromosome 4 and noticed the DNA there was different for those with the disease. After further study, the group observed that the gene contained DNA that featured the repeating sequence of bases CAG, which tells the body to produce the amino acid glutamine, which appears in excess in people with other diseases. Although Dr. Wexler had not yet discovered a cure by the time of the symposium, she encouraged others to help.[5] For Dr. Wexler’s closing lecture, “The Oracle of DNA: Repercussions of the Human Genome Project,” she focused on potential outcomes of the HGP and how it was creating issues that were important not just for scientists, but for everyone to discuss. In her lecture, she pointed out a gap between finding a gene for a genetic disorder and knowing what to do with that knowledge, which was causing debate among those facing discrimination for genetic disorders. When people want to learn more about their genes, only they should be able to give consent. Dr. Wexler then showed interviews of individuals tested for Huntington’s disease and discussed their reactions after discovering that they had Huntington’s disease and the probability of having a genetic mutation. Lastly, she discussed the problems that occur when people want to manipulate genes to clone humans or control the characteristics of future generations, which could seriously complicate the diversity and acceptance of the modern age.[6]

Dr. Hood followed Dr. Wexler on the first day of the symposium and preceded her on the second day. During Dr. Hood’s lecture “Genomics and the Analysis of Complex Biological Systems,” he discussed the development of instruments to interface with computers to better analyze data, along with the revolutionary potential of biology. He stated that biology consists of biological information, which occurred in three places: in DNA, in Messenger RNA and in complex systems and networks. By understanding the information of DNA encoded in genes, experts could better understand the sequence of the DNA, and how it affects different genes and cells. Also, since information in Messenger RNA is converted to amino acids in proteins, it allowed scientists to understand what determines the structure of a protein, and how that structure indicates the function. Lastly, understanding the information of biological systems would help researchers understand the components of different systems, along with their interactions and functions. Dr. Hood mentioned that biological information, systems and networks are similar to computer programming languages,  systems and networks, meaning that HGP and advancements in computer science can benefit from each other.[7] During Dr. Hood’s second lecture, titled “Genomics, Immunity, Development, and Cancer,” he discussed how scientists wanted to improve medicine by analyzing biological systems and information in three different model organisms: yeast, urchins, and mice. Yeast was a single-celled organism used to define biological complexity and help researchers understand how drugs worked for specific phenomena, like DNA reparation or replication. The genetic rules of the sea urchin made it effective for deciphering the language that regulates and controls its genes. The mouse is more complex and has an immune system so was used to understand how information travels in systems. Mice could also be used to study and possibly cure diseases, and to determine the functions of genes affected by diseases. Since scientists were aware that some genes may cause diseases or predispose someone to a specific disease, they expected the HGP would identify those genes in people and allow for a sooner treatment.[8]

Dr. Caskey gave two lectures on the first day of the symposium. During his lecture titled “Genome Science Drives New Drug Development,” he focused on an application of the HGP. Although at the time of this symposium, the HGP was still being conducted, people were already considering the applications for the knowledge that would be gained from the project. Since many diseases were related to genes and hereditary, drug development and therapeutic development were expecting to benefit. Dr. Caskey discussed how Merck and other companies were still determining how to use the information being generated and the technologies being developed for the HGP to develop new drugs.[9] During Dr. Caskey’s second lecture titled “Bypass Bypasses by Gene Therapy,” he discussed how Merck was studying new delivery vectors to transport (deliver) the genetic material into the target (recipient) for neovascularization and other gene therapies. They were seeing promising results with it stimulating the growth of new blood vessels to bypass restricted or blocked vessels. Although gene therapy was still in early development, Dr. Caskey’s lecture demonstrated scientists were eagerly working on applications for the knowledge of the human genome.[10]

Between Dr. Caskey’s two lectures, Dr. Henry gave a single lecture titled “Not Only Human! What Are We Learning from Those Other Genomes?” While the HGP focused on the human genome, Dr. Henry mentioned that dozens of other genome projects were mapping other organisms, since it was considered immoral to experiment regularly on humans. The organisms that were selected were ones in “which it [was] easier to carry out the functional genomics, [including what] all of those genes do.”[11] This could be done by modifying the genes of other organisms, and to determine how that modification could have an effect on the genes in humans, where in a cell or organism a gene product is located, and which gene products interact with each other. One organism whose genome had already been completed a year prior to the symposium was baker’s year, which was used to understand gene functions. Other organisms were chosen since there are important human pathogen, like Hemophilus influenza. Although they were not as large as the human genome, they did provide an idea of what could be learned from the human genome itself.[12] 

On January 22 and January 29, issues of The Megaphone contained articles about the symposium and the HGP. The former was published on the first day of the symposium, and gave some background for the HGP, as well as brief descriptions for both how the Brown Symposium would operate and the names and qualifications of the lecturers. It also featured a short Q&A from Dr. Villa, which not only explained the backstory and purposes of the project, but also touched on the fact that those working on the project needed to consider ethical problems.[13] The latter included the opinions of some attendees, many of whom were impressed by the lectures, finding them highly informative. Some attendees appreciated when lecturers spoke in terms that were easier to understand, and others praised Dr. Villa for organizing the symposium. One of those points that was given was that although many college students majoring in the sciences may consider the HGP understandable to only a few individuals, “with the increasing rate of technological growth in this field [of science], no one can get left behind.”[14] As demonstrated by those issues, the 1998 Brown Symposium helped the Southwestern community and the public better understand the HGP.

            Thus, the attendees to the 1998 Brown Symposium gained a better understanding and appreciation of the HGP, even five years before its completion. By having experts from different scientific backgrounds present at the symposium, the Southwestern faculty provided the attendees with a lot of information regarding the work that was being conducted for the HGP and the impacts that it could have for the world. Without the different points of view regarding the project, the symposium would not have been as informative as it was. In fact, it was thanks to the 1998 Brown Symposium that the Southwestern community and the people of Georgetown were able to understand work being conducted for the HGP and the goals of the project.

[1] “Brown Symposium,” Academics, Southwestern

[2] The Human Genome Project: Advancements, Repercussions & Challenges. Southwestern University, 1998.

[3] “What is the Human Genome Project?,” National Human Genome Research Institute, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project/What

[4] The Human Genome Project: Advancements, Repercussions & Challenges. Southwestern University, 1998.

[5] Nancy S. Wexler, “Venezuela to Victory.” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, January 22, 1998).

[6] Nancy S. Wexler, “The Oracle of DNA: Repercussions of the Human Genome Project” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, January 23, 1998).

[7] Leroy Hood, “Genomics and the Analysis of Complex Biological Systems.” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, January 22, 1998).

[8] Leroy Hood, “Genomics, Immunity, Development and Cancer” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, January 23, 1998).

[9] Thomas C. Caskey, “Genome Science Drives New Drug Development” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, January 22, 1998).

[10] Thomas C. Caskey, “Bypass Bypasses by Gene Therapy” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, January 22, 1998).

[11] Susan A. Henry, “Not Only Human! What Are We Learning from Those Other Genomes?” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, 1998).

[12] Susan A. Henry, “Not Only Human! What Are We Learning from Those Other Genomes?” (Lecture, Southwestern University, Georgetown, 1998).

[13] Trinh, Tina. “Q & A: Villa discusses Human Genome Project.” The Megaphone. January 22, 1998. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth634654/.

[14] Newton, Adam P. “Brown Symposium XX: recapping a success.” The Megaphone. January 29, 1998. https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth634905/

Learning about the Human Genome Project at SU, 1990s