Genome Scientist, Valley Native Blends Arts & Sciences

From: Public Affairs

Scientists’ growing understanding of human genetics is leading to a revolution of how doctors prevent, diagnose and treat illness, the chief of the National Institutes of Health said Saturday at an event meant to highlight JMU’s yearlong emphasis on the connection between arts and science.

“This is a very exciting moment,” said Francis Collins, who in addition to being the NIH director is also known for his ground breaking work in mapping the entire human genome.

“Personalized medicine” will become more prevalent as scientists continue to unlock the secrets of which genetic malfunctions contribute to disease, Collins said. Discoveries are already leading doctors to be able to diagnose and predict risk for disease, choose better drug therapies and apply gene therapy as a treatment.

“We’re still on the road” to personalized medicine, Collins said, but as the cost for DNA testing decreases, the influence of genetic information in health-care decisions will increase.

“Do not be surprised,” he said, “if your own DNA sequence becomes important in your health care in the next half decade.”

The ability to gain the information presents questions. For instance: If you know you’re at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, would you want to know, considering there’s little that can be done about it?

“I decided to find out,” Collins said, showing the audience his own DNA analysis, which indicated an increased risk for atrial fibrillation, type II diabetes and prostate cancer, for instance.

Seeing the diabetes risk motivated Collins to start an exercise regimen and alter his diet.

“This was the push I needed to recognize immortality was not in my future,” he joked.

Collins grew up in the Shenandoah Valley near Staunton. His lecture was part of a daylong series of events that were the pinnacle of JMU’s yearlong “Dance of Art and Science,” a bringing together of the two disciplines to foster greater understanding of scientific discovery.

“Science and art can work together to improve humanity,” said Collins, who later spoke to a group of science students and then attended “Furious Beauty: Genome,” a Liz Lerman Dance Exchange performance that uses dance, video and music to explore genetics.

The performance – at times profound, and at times quirky – uses those media to explain the historical development of genetic science; explore the ethical issues of aging, disease and death; and inspire the audience about genetic processes. The goal, Lerman says, is for audiences to leave knowing about the science, but mostly to be in awe of what comes together to form and sustain life.

Collins and Lerman took the stage after the show to discuss the interplay in science and art, saying that the two complement each other and share many similarities, especially creativity.

Lerman added that the arts may well be this century’s forum for discussing major issues such as genetics. “Where is our town hall today?” she said. “This has been a town hall for this campus.”

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Jan. 24, 2011