Human Genome Project
The Human Genome Project is Ushering in a
Whos Watching Out for Your Future in this Brave New World?
By Janet Basu
Illustration by Anita Kunz; photographs by Marcos Lujan
The unknown road
avid Cox started on the
path that would lead him to
the Human Genome Project more than two decades ago in a tiny medical consulting
room. He was a young pediatrician and geneticist, sitting hunched in a small chair,
knee to knee with the parents of a newborn baby with Down syndrome.
Cox is a soft-spoken man with a calm, even manner. He has iron-black hair brushed
back from a high forehead and dark eyes; when he looks at you, you feel the full
force of his attention. That attention, and a voice that can quiet and soothe, was
about all that he could offer these parents. He had few answers to their agonized
questions. He could not predict their childs future.
The family always comes to you expecting the worst, protecting themselves against
it, he says. But often, the worst is not what happens.
Down syndrome causes a loss of brain cells that leaves some children so retarded
they cannot feed themselves. But others grow up to lead relatively independent
lives. Part of the difference in those outcomes lies in the babies genes.
Somewhere along the extra copy of Chromosome 21 that every Down baby is born with,
theres a mutation - almost certainly several mutations - that cause
brain cells to degenerate too rapidly.
As a geneticist, Cox knew that if he could compare the chromosomes of many
with Down syndrome, he could find clues to explain why some lose more brain
than others. He could offer parents a better understanding of their childs
genetics. Someday, he might be able to offer treatments to make the
lives easier. And the same clues might help explain the biology of other brain
diseases like Alzheimers and schizophrenia.