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Historic DNA discovery paved the way for today's biology revolution

San Antonio (Feb. 27, 2003) — Friday, Feb. 28, is the 50th anniversary of the day Watson and Crick announced their discovery of the DNA molecule. A geneticist and a physician at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) took time this week to reflect on what the achievement has meant to biomedical sciences and where the future might lead.

"The discovery of DNA began a revolution in biology that has touched all our lives," said Susan L. Naylor, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology at UTHSCSA and one of the U.S. scientists most involved in the Human Genome Project. "The most exciting times are yet to come as we discover the products of our genes. My lab played one small part in the gigantic effort to sequence the human genome."

Dr. Naylor's Health Science Center laboratory serves as the repository for information about human chromosome 3, the third-largest chromosome of DNA in cells. Her lab collaborated with Baylor College of Medicine and Washington University in St. Louis on the sequencing of chromosome 3.

The final version of the genome likely will be announced this spring, and word is that the Smithsonian Museum in Washington plans a huge 50-year celebration in April. "Fifty years ago, it seemed so remote that the entire sequence of the genome would be worked out," Dr. Naylor said. "It was 1983 before the first gene was mapped to a region using DNA technology." That was the Huntington's disease gene to Chromosome 4, and Dr. Naylor was the researcher who pinpointed the location.

Understanding the structure and composition of DNA was the first in a long series of scientific and technological steps that now are being applied to human disease, including prostate cancer, said Dean A. Troyer, M.D., associate professor of pathology. He is part of a UTHSCSA team looking for biomarkers of risk in the genes of men with and without prostate cancer. Last year, the team announced that it had isolated one genetic variation that increased the risk of prostate cancer threefold in Hispanic men.

"My laboratory, in collaboration with a company in Maryland, has produced a rich database containing the levels of expression of all the 30,000 known genes in prostate cancer," Dr. Troyer said. "A subset of these genes is either 'turned up' or 'turned down' in prostate cancer. Our immediate hope is that the products of over-expressed genes can be used to improve the screening and diagnosis of prostate cancer."

Only one in four men with an elevated count on the widely known prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test actually has prostate cancer. "We would like to refine the accuracy of the screening test so that those with cancer are precisely identified and those without are excluded from further testing," Dr. Troyer said.

The challenge for cancer researchers in the coming years will be to integrate vast amounts of data concerning gene expression, genomic DNA and its regulation, and protein translation and modification. "It is clear that in this effort, the use of powerful software and integrative databases will be critical," Dr. Troyer noted. "This has been called bioinformatics."

The discovery of DNA has led to understandings of the genetic mechanisms of cancer, genetic risk assessment during pregnancy, gene therapy (the concept of treating a disease or condition by altering or replacing a dysfunctional gene) and more. "Some people feel that maybe the most exciting time to live was during the discovery of America or the settling of the West, but the scientific strides that have been made in my lifetime are just phenomenal," Dr. Naylor said.

The developments have been fast and furious. "To map one gene used to take us months, and now the locations, sequences and variations of genes are known and ready for us to study their functions," Dr. Naylor said.

Contact: Will Sansom or Aileen Salinas