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.

research, launching the African-American DNA Roots Project in 2001, partly out of curiosity about his own ancestry. He is currently working on a project to trace the black descendants of James Madison, one of America’s founding fathers.

When word got out that the geneticist was using DNA to conduct ancestry research, the project was flooded with hundreds of e-mail requests a day. “When it got to 5,000 in the queue, we knew we were in trouble,” says Jackson of the overwhelming response. To deal with the backlog, Jackson has directed potential participants to the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Genographic Project (, which analyzes either Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA and charges a nominal fee.

Jackson’s approach to research incorporates not just the examination of DNA but other factors such as history, culture, food, migration, and so on. He does not see DNA as the definitive answer, but rather, as part of the answer. “There is an over-reliance on the DNA data,” he says. “It’s a powerful tool but it was never meant to be used by itself.”

Instead, Jackson incorporates other fields in order to get a clearer understanding of what the DNA is telling us. For example, he is in the process of putting together a consortium of geneticists, historians, writers, and anthropologists to move toward linking A

frican Americans to Africans on a broad front. “There is a per
ception of DNA as undeniable proof, which is simply not sensible,” he adds. “We are just laying the foundations for this type of research.”

Dr. Charles E. Crutchfield III: Going to Market
Charles E. Crutchfield III, M.D., is one scientist who decided to take his research into the marketplace. The Minnesota-based clinical dermatologist, who founded Crutchfield Dermatology in 2002 (, conducts research to develop drug treatment for psoriasis, a chronic and often painful skin condition that affects roughly 7 million people in the U.S.

Crutchfield’s research examines how psoriasis operates at the genetic level. “If you have abnormal skin and you make it turn into normal skin [through drug treatment], you’re probably turning off some genes and turning on others,” he says. “I can take a sample of the skin while it’s healing to see which genes are being turned on and which are being turned off to get a better understanding of what is causing psoriasis.” Through research and testing, “we discovered that one of the proteins that binds to DNA to cause DNA transcribing is a key factor in psoriasis research.”

Based on his studies, Crutchfield has developed a treatment called CutiCort Spray, which patients use twice a day, for two to four weeks, to treat their psoriasis. He is currently in discussions with several drugmakers to sell or license the patent and develop additional medicines to treat psoriasis.

The clinical dermatologist is in an enviable situation, because he is able to offer a research division within his medical practice with profits from the practice funding the research. Because of his unique position — specializing in skin conditions particular to persons of color, such as keloids, pseudofolliculitis

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