Hawley makes study of genetics accessible to all

January 17, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Scott Hawley, a UC Davis professor, thinks his field of study is so important that he wants everyone involved in discussions of genetics. In order to do this, he found it necessary to write his own textbook, "The Human Genome: A User's Guide" (1999, Academic Press).

He wanted this textbook to be different, inclusive, interesting and a vehicle to stimulate discussion among academics and lay readers. Hawley invited a student, Catherine A. Mori, to be his co-author and add a readable element to the book. On the last page, he included his e-mail address so readers could send him their suggestions or criticisms.

The book is already in its second printing, having sold 6,000 copies in two months.

"We talk about the genetics of human behavior," said Hawley. "We're at this major fork in the road in how we deal with science of human genetics. We're in a position where one can imagine being able to modify, control aspects of human heredity. So what I tell the students, only being a bit melodramatic, is that they are either going to control this or it will control them and their children's children."

Genetics is the science of how heredity works. Our differences as humans stem from a combination of heredity and environment. Gene therapy, the manipulation of genes, is here. DNA based identification is here. The military is now keeping DNA dogtags and some hospitals routinely collect DNA from infants at birth. What will this information be used for? Society needs to think about issues of ownership, privacy and the public good.

"It won't be long at all before someone starts using DNA tests to determine whether or not you are suitable for a specific job or employment," predicted Hawley.

The professor became interested in the study of genetics and birth defects when he was attending Castro Valley High School. A classmate had Down Syndrome and when Hawley had the opportunity to attend a March of Dimes lecture on birth defects he asked his dad to drive him over to Cal State Hayward one Saturday morning to learn about what had happened to his DS friend, Earl. Down Syndrome is the focus of Hawley's lab research today.

Hawley went to UC Riverside, then the University of Washington where he got his doctorate. He worked at the Albert Einstein Medical School in the Bronx before moving back to California.

He says one of the great misconception about his field is this: People think genetics is a simple science.

"Someone a few years ago claimed to have found a gene for happiness," he said. "People today realize that was a bit over-simplistic. But some behaviors appear to have strong genetic basis. We are taking baby steps but very fast baby steps and we will have the whole sequence of the human genome in the next few years."

The Human Genome Project is an attempt to map the entire human genome, piece by piece, and then sequence it.

Cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy (genetics diseases) will be tested and even corrected in utero in the near future. Hawley says we will be able to predict hereditary diseases like schizophrenia. But decisions still need to be made by society about how we handle that information. We have limited ability to treat schizophrenia. What is the child going to be told and when? And how do we keep this information confidential?

"I don't think we've begun to think about that," he said. "It's impossible to talk about human genetics without talking about ethics in society. We don't want the American Eugenics Movement of the '20s and '30s to happen again." Laws were passed in those years prohibiting those with low I.Q.s, epileptics and criminals from marrying. The idea was to keep humans "pure."

In genetics, it seems that every scientific discovery quickly becomes political. Take, for instance, what the media hailed as the discovery of "the gay gene."

Hawley says there is no such thing as a gay gene.

"There is some science...showing that a small fraction of homosexuality in men may be associated with a specific genetic variant," he said. "The media has been aggressive in trying to globalize the results. It would be shocking to me if some aspect of human sexuality wasn't genetically determined...but a larger percent is environmentally determined. The more interesting question is the mix."

Genetics is not simple. Even the question of using DNA as evidence is to some extent limited, said Hawley.

"It can't tell us how it got there or who put it there. In certain cases it can be final, exculpatory. It can further reduce mistakes and help prove innocence," he said. Particularly when it comes to proving the innocence of inmates wrongly imprisoned.

"A couple of dozen prisoners have been released due to DNA evidence," said Hawley. "There are a number of projects that have been started in assisting convicts. I suspect that errors are rare but if DNA testing will give us ways to reduce errors that's great," he added.

"I want to see that genetics free us rather than having us determined by our genes," Hawley said.

He and Mori are now working on a second edition of "The Human Genome" that may be linked to a Web site that will enable people to move more quickly to relevant sections of the book or to find additional information.

"I want people to be good consumers of genetic information and I want to stimulate discussion," he said. If you have questions or comments, e-mail the professor at rshawley@ucdavis.edu.

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