By Amanda Burdette
BALTIMORE – Manipulating the pipette with gloved hands, the student compressed the instrument sending tumor DNA strands into a reaction liquid for duplication.
She had to take extreme care not to allow any of her own skin cells to fall into the test tube, an error that could cause those cells, not the tumor’s, to be copied.
Around 180 young people from 40 schools got the chance this week to copy and analyze DNA with the help of the American Society of Human Genetics. In workshops at the Baltimore Convention Center, students discussed ethics in genetics, genetic testing and genetic counseling.
The workshop was part of the society’s conference, ending Saturday, at which over 2,000 geneticists will present their research to an additional 3,000 guests from across the globe.
The conventioners were part of the draw for the students.
The event “gets local scientists in touch with area students [to] form long contacts with them,” said Paula Gregory, director of outreach and education for human cancer genetics at Ohio State University.
Conducting lab work exposed students to what Michael Hemann, a graduate student in genetics at Johns Hopkins University, called a routine procedure for comparing tumor DNA and normal cells.
Gregory explained: “Normal cells will have two copies of DNA, one from the mother and one from the father. A tumor cell will have more than two because they are abnormal in how they divide.”
Hemann added that seeing DNA copied through a polymerase chain reaction “takes the mysticism away from the process. It is no more abstract then a car engine.”
Erika Heateen, a senior at Severn School in Severna Park, said she is currently taking an advanced placement biology class, but has never had the chance to use the instruments provided at the conference.
“The pipettes are too expensive. I got a chance to use the materials I probably will be using in college,” she said.
Besides the calculated measuring pipette, a heating and cooling machine called a thermal cycler was used in copying the DNA. The thermal cycler is necessary because the heat separates the double stranded DNA so it can be replicated, Gregory said. But, it can’t be too hot or the DNA will be destroyed.
The experiment “is useful for students with a strong background in genetics,” said Martin Hager, a biology teacher from Barrie School in Silver Spring. However he thought that, for students who hadn’t be taught the material, the procedure was done too quickly for complete understanding.
Hager suggested that conference leaders send teachers preparatory information so students can do preliminary work in class.
Sarah Kearsley, a Barrie student exposed to lab work in a summer job, called the conference beneficial. “It helps to learn by doing,” she said.
Students also learned about another aspect of genetics — genetic counseling. They broke groups of around 17 to discuss a genetic counselor’s role and to hear a personal story from someone with a genetic disease.
Toni Pollin, a genetic counselor, explained that during a genetic counseling session, a person gives a health history of all relatives, age and ethnic background to determine whether he or she is in a population with an increased rate for disease.
David Nanney, who works with the Foundation to Fight Blindness, lost his sight at age 55 due to retinitis pigmentosa, a inherited condition that usually starts as night blindness, then progressively worsens.
Through tracing the disease in his family, he found he had inherited it from his father’s side. His son, who has night blindness, does not want to be tested for the condition at this time in his life, Nanney said.
Pollin stressed to the students that genetic counselors are in their field to give information and to help people who have difficult decisions to make.
Internet terminals were set up for students to access information on genetic counseling or any of the topics discussed during the conference, Gregory said.
The mood of the conference was summed up by Christina Peace, a senior at Baltimore’s Western High School:
“I love science,” she said. “Science is the best.” -30-