"You say that the first condition recognized to be genetic in nature, Black Urine Disease, was identified as early as the 1580s. You also note that the discovering physician, Scribonius, was a leading proponent of the water test for witches. It's heartening that this child, whose urine turned inky black when it was exposed to the air, was never tried as a witch himself. Or was he?"
"There wasn't any mention of witchcraft. I guess because the child had no other symptoms -- he wasn't having fits, and nobody was having problems around him -- they assumed he wasn't a witch.
"That does bring up an important point, though. When the Human Genome Project was being started, I went to a press conference with Francis Collins. One of the concerns expressed early on was that people would be stigmatized once something was identified in their genetic makeup. Collins said that it was possible that people would, indeed, be stigmatized, initially. He also said how wrong that was to do, because the best estimates were that all of us carry between seven and nine really bad genes. Whether or not they get expressed depends on which genes they are -- which is luck of the draw -- and then what kind of environment you find yourself in."
"I can't help but think that genetics is not the field for persons who seek ultimate answers. It seems that each answer that's been found has just led to a thousand more questions."
"It's not a field for somebody who's looking for black and white. You get incremental answers. People seem to think that once you've identified a gene, you can move right to creating a drug or gene therapy. But, it's not that simple, and it's not that straightforward. Biological systems are enormously complex. Changing one thing in a cell can affect so many other things.
"The one thing that frustrates the general public more than anything else is the lack of certainty. You hear people say, 'Just tell me what to eat so I live well.' But it isn't that simple.
"A promising outcome of recent genetic research, though, has to do with SNPs [single nucleotide polymorphisms]. These are tiny variations that cause individuals to respond to various drugs in unique ways. By identifying a person's SNP profile, you can select drugs that are effective and avoid those that aren't. I think this personalized medicine is going to provide some of the answers people have been seeking from genetics research."