Cracking the Genomics Code

Genetic research isn’t just for prime-time dramas or high-profile criminal cases. Here’s how african american DNA detectives are employing scientific research to change our lives.

understand and transform our lives.

Dr. Georgia M. Dunston: Addressing Disparities
For Georgia Dunston, Ph.D., a genome research center at Howard University was not simply an item on a wish list for the venerable institution — it was a necessity. “I knew that this, of all arenas, was one in which African Americans had to be engaged. And whatever the path, I was willing to walk it,” says Dunston of her determination to have the university and the African American community participate in DNA-based research.

In 2001, the university launched the National Human Genome Center as a research site for the genetic study of diseases that are prevalent in African Americans and the African diaspora, as well as other people of color.

Dunston has been instrumental in recruiting some of the nation’s top geneticists to the university and has been a force in ensuring that Howard and other historically black institutions play an instrumental role in DNA research. And she is ensuring that those HBCUs that offer doctorates in health-related sciences get the needed funds to recruit scientists, train students, and participate in research on a playing field equal to that of their mainstream counterparts.

Dunston funded the genetic research program through the Research Centers in Minority Institutions program, an entity at the National Institutes of Health created in the 1980s following legislation by Congress that addresses funding disparities. The legislation mandated that the NIH invest money to build infrastructure for research on minority campuses. To date, the Center has received about $20 million in grants.

Why the need for a separate institution at Howard? Dunston notes that the participants in the Human Genome Project were Europeans with a traceable pedigree, yet prevailing scientific research informs us that the oldest populations — and therefore the populations with the greatest degree of genetic variations — originated in Africa.

Dunston is currently researching variations within the genome. She says she is awed by the project and its implications. “Less than one-tenth of a percent of our total sequence is what we use to distinguish ourselves from each other,” she says. “There are stretches in our sequence that if you looked at one portion, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish us from bacteria. That speaks to the universality, the interrelatedness of all life.”

Dr. Bruce Jackson: The Genetic Detective
Bruce Jackson, Ph.D., might not necessarily agree with the quick move to the for-profit arena in which DNA research is heading, but the geneticist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell remains cautiously optimistic about what the research can do. At the university, Jackson investigates genes that are linked to the onset of prostate cancer — a disease that disproportionately affects African Americans. He is also co-founder of the Prostate Cancer Alliance, a national team of African American scientists searching for a cure for the disease.

Through the biotechnology program at Massachusetts Bay Community College, Jackson, who serves as department chair of science and director of the biotechnology and DNA forensics programs, created the world’s first forensics DNA science degree program. Jackson is also engaged in DNA-based ancestry

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