Allocation enables genetic researchers to use artificial DNA to locate defective genes

by Benjamin Ganje

Geneticists at the University are one step closer to finding a way to remove defects in humans.
The University is one of two schools chosen in July from a pool of 90 institutions to receive a $2.5 million grant for genetic research.
The money would further the development for what has been dubbed the “Sleeping Beauty” genetic research, a system of genetic transfer discovered at the University.
The grant, which begins Sept. 1, was handed out by the California-based Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Technology Development Grant.
Sleeping Beauty is an artificial DNA construction that will allow scientists to study genes through mutations, according to professor Perry Hackett of the University Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development.
Sleeping Beauty works as a transfer agent of genes. It is a modified version of a gene no longer found in fish. It has been awakened by Hackett’s team, who appropriately named it after the fairy-tale princess.
The Sleeping Beauty transposon is a segment of DNA that moves to a new location in a chromosome. Once it marks the gene by causing it to mutate, scientists can pinpoint defects.
This allows the researchers to locate genetic defects that are almost impossible to find.
After the genes have been tagged, Sleeping Beauty can introduce DNA into the gene’s chromosomes, and through experimentation, find a way to mend the defective gene.
“It is the applied principle of evolution in a reverse sense,” said Hackett.
Hackett first began work on the genetic project in 1995 and its findings were published in 1997.
Assistant professors Stephen Ekker and David Largaespada, who were instrumental in bringing the grant to the University, worked on part of the development that uses Sleeping Beauty for gene discovery.
The system, which has been tested on vertabrates, such as salmon and zebra fish, may some day be ready for use in human research, according to Ekker.
Genes that are disabled can cause tumors. If scientists can use Sleeping Beauty to isolate the disabled gene, gene therapists can attempt to fix the problem.
Professor Scott McIvor, of the University genetics department, is a gene therapist who conducted extensive research that was also vital in bringing the grant to the University.
The potential backlash for the University is the ethical dilemma that seems to loom around the discussion of genetics.
Arthur Derse, an associate director at the Medical College of Wisconsin-Bioethics Center, said when scientists are changing genetic makeup they are risking unknown defects.
“Our concepts of disease, what is disease and what is not, are going to change significantly because of this technology,” Derse said.
However, Hackett contends this research should not raise any eyebrows in the scientific community.
“I can’t imagine any ethical consideration of this at all,” said Hackett, “We do things in a highly ethical manner.”
“I have a simple view of things,” added Ekker. “If you have the opportunity to develop a drug that rescues possible defects people have — you have a moral obligation to do something,” he said.
Not only is Sleeping Beauty useful in animal research, but it expands the possibilities of plant manipulation as well. Vegetarians might be allowed some nutrients found only in meat products that are imposed into plants using Sleeping Beauty.