Genetics - From Frankenstein to the Future

Authored on:

Oct 02, 2012

"The era of personalized genomic medicine is fast approaching,” says Richard Smith, Professor of Otolaryngology, Pediatrics, Molecular Physiology, and Biophysics. “Clinicians will provide health care tailored to each person’s genome to inform choices about medications, disease and disease prevention, and surgical risks.”

Smith, who is the Co-Director of the University of Iowa Institute of Human Genetics, says that as tests are developed to identify individuals’ susceptibilities to common diseases, medical care is changing toward a focus on prevention. Even with such tests, however, some persons with genetic risk factors for a given disease will never develop that disease, while others, who lack any risk factors, will develop it for other reasons.  “These limitations and the ethical issues associated with personal genomic medicine make it important for scientists and humanities scholars to work closely together to explore and understand the implications of this new direction in medical care," says Smith.

The field of genetics research received a boost at The University of Iowa when the Provost announced in 2010 the hiring of a cluster of new faculty across campus who will pursue genetics research. The co-directors of the Iowa Institute of Human Genetics (IHG), Smith and Jeff Murray, Professor of Neonatology and Genetics, Biological Sciences, Dentistry, and Epidemiology, intend to be inclusive in their work, reaching out to other groups on campus to ask how geneticists might engage the larger campus and community in the challenging ethical and social as well as scientific issues raised by genetics research.

This fall, conversations between IHG, the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Genetics, and Hardin Library for the Health Sciences are resulting in several events that welcome the public to reflect on the responsibilities of science and scientists to the broader culture.  An exhibit and a public talk raise questions about choices that affect researchers in science, social sciences, and the humanities, funding agencies, artists, writers, filmmakers, communities, students, families, and individuals.

“Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature” is a National Institutes of Health (NIH) traveling exhibit that explores not only the original novel but its many adaptations and cultural uses. Published in 1818 by Mary Shelley when she was still in her teens, Frankenstein has captivated people ever since, exposing hidden, sometimes barely conscious fears of science and technology. The exhibit considers how Shelley's unfortunate creature frequently provides a framework for discussions of contemporary biomedical advances such as cloning, which challenge our traditional understanding of what it means to be human. It is on display at the second floor south entrance of the Old Capitol Center [UCC] through November 2.

A public talk will echo the exhibit’s themes. On the evening of November 1 at the Iowa City Public Library, “Genetics in Literature, Life, and the Laboratory,” will be the subject of a talk by a noted leader in the field of law and genetics and a scholar who focuses on ethical and social issues raised by genetics as they appear in literature and films. Vanderbilt University professors Ellen Wright Clayton and Jay Clayton, who have worked together on NIH projects, offer a model for richly interdisciplinary collaboration that joins medicine and law with studies of literature, ethics, the arts, and popular culture.

Ellen Clayton, the Rosalind E. Franklin Professor of Genetics and Health Policy, holds appointments in both the law and medical schools at Vanderbilt University, where she also co-founded the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. She has published two books and more than 100 scholarly articles and chapters in medical journals, interdisciplinary journals and law journals on the intersection of law, medicine and public health. An active participant in policy debates, she has advised the National Institutes of Health as well as other federal and international bodies on an array of topics ranging from children's health to the ethical conduct of research involving human subjects.

Jay Clayton, William R. Kenan Professor of English, has lectured on genetics and literature at the National Human Genome Research Institute at the NIH, the English Institute, the Society for Literature and Science, and medical schools around the country. His work spans from explorations of Dickens to Blade Runner. He has just been appointed the director of the nationally recognized Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy[s1] . 

Their talk is in the Iowa City Public Library’s Meeting Room A from 7 to 9:00 pm. A panel discussion will follow their initial remarks.

Two other events later this fall include a showing of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein at the Iowa City Public Library with an introduction by UI professor and director of the Institute for Cinema and Culture, Corey Creekmur, on Tuesday, October 2 from 7 to 8:30 in Room A. and a presentation by graduate students in the Interdisciplinary Genetics PhD program based on the TV program Mythbusters. The time and date of this event are to be announced.

In addition to the Genetics Cluster, the events are being co-sponsored by the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Medicine, Public Health, the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Genetics, the Interdisciplinary 18th-19th-Century Interdisciplinary Colloquium of International Programs, the Center for Teaching, the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, UI departments of Biology, Biostatistics, Epidemiology, English, Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, History, and the Iowa City Public Library.  

For more information, please contact Neda Barrett at neda-barrett@uiowa.edu, or 335.4034