Showing 1 - 10 of 47 annotations tagged with the keyword "Genetic Engineering"

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: TV Program

Summary:

The Knick was inspired by the Knickerbocker Hospital, founded in Harlem in 1862 to serve the poor. In this 20-part TV series spread out over two seasons, the fictional Knick is somewhere in the lower half of Manhattan around 1900. The time covered during the series is not marked in any distinct way. The characters don’t age much, and although fashion and customs remain static during the series, the scope and significance of advancements that come into play were actually adopted over a longer time than the episodes cover.   

The series builds on some known history. The central character, the chief surgeon Dr. John Thackery, is modeled on a famous surgeon of the time, Dr. William Halsted, in both his surgical adventurism and in his drug addictions. The character Dr. Algernon Edwards, who is an African-American, Harvard-educated, and European-trained surgeon, is based in part on Dr. Louis T. Wright, who became the first African-American surgeon at Harlem Hospital during the first half of the 20th century.  

Storylines of human drama and folly run through the series. Among them are medical cases both ordinary and bizarre, heroic successes and catastrophic failures, loves won and lost, gilded lives and wretched existences, honor and corruption, racism and more racism. Within and around these storylines are the scientific, medical, and industrial advances of the period, as well as the social contexts that form fin de si
ècle hospital care and medical research in New York City.
 

Some of the industrial advances we see adopted by the hospital include electrification, telephone service, and electric-powered ambulances. We see that transitions to these new technologies are not without risks and catastrophes: patients and hospital staff are electrocuted, and when the ambulance batteries died -- a frequent occurrence-- many of the patients they carried died, too.

Medical advances integrated into various episodes include x-rays, electric-powered suction devices, and an inflatable balloon for intrauterine compression to stop bleeding. Thackery is a driven researcher taking on some of the big problems of the day, such as making blood transfusions safe, curing syphilis, and discovering the physiologic mechanisms of drug addiction. We see how he learns at the cost of his patients, or rather his subjects. We also glimpse movements directed at population health. For example, epidemiological methods are applied to find the source of a typhoid outbreak, which drew from the actual case of Mary Mallon (aka, Typhoid Mary). Shown juxtaposed to the advances epidemiology was then promising is the concurrent interest that was rising in eugenics and its broad application to control for unwanted groups. Research ethics and regulations were a long way off.


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Summary:

The author is a practicing neurosurgeon, one of only two hundred or so women in this specialty which numbers about 4,500. She was the first woman to be admitted to her neurosurgery residency program. Her father was a surgeon and she was definitely influenced by him and says that, as the oldest of four children, it was always expected that she would become a doctor; but she didn't decide for sure until partway through her second year of college.

Once in medical school her decision for neurosurgery as her specialty came very easily. Oliver Sacks's writing had a significant influence on her decision. She was also influenced by her college sweetheart who became her husband and who also chose to train as a neurosurgeon. He is not practicing now and they do not have children.

Her description of her long years of training are interestingly related with many individual patient stories and also many descriptions of her teachers and peers. She takes time to describe how she views the specialty itself and its power structure and all that entails. Among the interesting chapters are two about her research years, one at the center for cognitive brain imaging at Carnegie-Mellon and one as a fellow in Epilepsy Surgery. The author was fascinated with the complexity of brain function and its relation to anatomical structure with which she was much more familiar.

Firlik found that she loved "life on the learning curve" and that her curiosity was broad. About her last year as Chief Resident she said "I have had my hand in saving lives and I have had my hand in helping to end them: I'm not talking about murder, of course. I am talking about helping people die" (227). She was able to write this book because she kept a journal during her training.

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Sarah's Daughters

Nisker, Jeffrey

Last Updated: May-09-2014
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

In a dramatic monologue, Joanne traces the devastation of a familial proclivity to breast cancer through four generations of women: her grandmother Sarah; her mother; Joanne herself and her two daughters, one of whom is also Sarah.

Joanne’s mother and grandmother both died very young of breast cancer; however, many other family members vanished in the Holocaust and the number of familial cancer deaths is insufficient for her to qualify for genetic testing. Her friend Linda, also a mother of two daughters, learns too late that she carries the BRCA gene; she urges Joanne to be tested.

Tormented by not knowing and equally tormented by what should be done if the test is positive—both for herself and her daughters, she convinces a doctor to lie so that the test can be performed. It is positive; Joanne opts for bilateral preventative mastectomies. During a visit to the gravesite of her mother and grandmother, she begins to explain the genetic risk to her daughters. 

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Far From The Tree

Solomon, Andrew

Last Updated: Dec-20-2013
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The author of this long, compassionate and often startling treatise on identity interviewed over three hundred families to elicit stories about raising exceptional children, stories that also come from these exceptional children ('exceptional' is the term chosen to describe the children in the author's material about the book).

'Far From The Tree' explores the challenges children face in being raised in families where one prominent feature in their identity is forged by something out of their parents' control and generally not part of the family's experience until then. These identities are not 'vertical' (passed down from generations of parents to their children), but 'horizontal', springing up between those who share in that identity at any one time. Solomon begins by wondering about his own relationship with his parents when he was a child discovering his sexuality and ends with his own role as a father, 'the terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility' (702); between the two poles of his own experience, he meets parents and children who have experienced deafness, dwarfism, autism, schizophrenia, severe physical disabilities and diverse gender identities, prodigies, children who were concieved by rape and children who became criminal.  

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is the biography of the scientist whose research James Watson and Francis Crick needed to elucidate the structure of the DNA molecule.  Even though the discovery has had profound implications for modern medicine, Franklin's contribution to it almost remained obscure.

In 1968 Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) became visible to the world beyond a small circle of scientists when Watson published The Double Helix (1968), his "personal account" of puzzling out DNA.  If not for Watson's self-incriminating candor about stealing glances at Franklin's research, we might not know how crucial her lucid x-ray diffractions of hydrated DNA were to him and Francis Crick.  However, the account that indirectly acknowledged Franklin's contribution to their work represented her in a patronizing caricature.  Since ovarian cancer took her life a decade before Watson's memoir appeared, others have been left to respond to his version of the DNA story and representation of his female colleague.  Among Franklin's defenders, Brenda Maddox offers the most complete and insightful restoration of the scientist, her research, and her life. 

Maddox's biography draws from not only the many scientific archives and personal papers of scientists Franklin worked with in England, Europe, and America, but also from previously undisclosed letters written by Franklin, her friends, and her family.  Maddox also interviewed Franklin's relatives.  Doing so allowed her to position Franklin's life within the history of her close, extended Anglo-Jewish family, generations of wealthy London publishers and bankers who experienced discrimination.  This history does more than belie some of Watson's hasty assumptions about Franklin's background.  It creates a biography of a complex woman who negotiated biases as a citizen and a scientist.     

The biography is divided into three parts.  The first narrates the story of Franklin's childhood, rigorous education, and successful career before accepting the fateful research post at King's College, London.  She's known for thinking skeptically and working mathematically.  Yet early on she showed an aptitude for three-dimensional thinking and for understanding crystalline structures.   As an undergraduate at Cambridge she speculated about a "'Geometrical basis for inheritance'" (56).

The second section concentrates on the 27 months at King's when she worked uneasily with Maurice Wilkins, who showed her revelatory x-rays of DNA to Watson.   This balanced account of a controversial episode in the history of science offers evidence that Franklin was close to drawing the same conclusion about the structure of DNA that Watson and Crick rushed into print.  This section also accessibly explains the molecular biology of her day and the painstaking physical and intellectual intricacies of making and interpreting x-rays of crystalline molecules. 

The third section reminds us that Franklin had a very productive, though short career after leaving DNA to others.  She directed research programs for the study of plant viruses, and she investigated the polio virus shortly before she died.  Respected scientists, including Crick, praised her research.   Many, unlike Wilkins, liked working with her.  More than 40 years after viewing what's known as Franklin's Photograph 51, Watson publicly acknowledged that seeing it "'was the key event'" in understanding the geometry of DNA (316).  (See the note on Photo 51 below.)        

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This is a huge and wonderful book about cancer, the collection of diseases that sickens people all over the globe and kills many of them. An epigraph to the book states, “A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer,” but the book also describes medical advances that now heal, prevent, or palliate most forms of cancer.

Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, has several strong themes. He sees cancer as an affliction with a long history, a story worthy of a biography; indeed recent discoveries show it to be rooted in our genes (although external factors such as viruses, asbestos, and tobacco smoke can cause genetic disruption). The story of cancer implies a surrounding triangle, the stories of sick people, treating physicians, and biological researchers, all of which Mukherjee artfully weaves across 472 pages. Cancer has Rohrschach blot qualities: depending on time, place, and role in life, humans have perceived different attributes of cancer. As the book ends, however, there is a coalescence of scientific understanding that is satisfying—although there is certainly more to be learned and we are all still vulnerable to genetic errors and, of course, we are intractably mortal.

Another strand is the nature of stories themselves, their twists and turns, presumed early solutions, and personal and social values embedded in them. Mukherjee threads throughout the book the case of a contemporary kindergarten teacher, Carla Reed, who has a leukemia. He bookends his text with ancient Persian Queen Atossa with (presumably) breast cancer. Reed, healed by the end of the book, was Mukherjee’s patient; Atossa was described by Herodotus: both suffered emotional turmoil because of their disease.  Mukherjee understands the affective dimensions of disease for patients and caregivers alike; literature represents these in various ways, and he quotes in his chapter epigraphs and in his prose many writers who describe human experience deeply: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Susan Sontag, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Carlos Williams, Carlo Levi, and Italo Calvino, to name a few.

The primary story, however, is the interplay of cancer and a large cast of observers, investigators, doctors, scientists, activists, and government officials. Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker dominate the first 100 pages with their two-decade war against cancer. While surgery—historically dramatic and disfiguring—had been a mainstay for treatment of cancer, Farber pursued a biochemical route, which elaborated into chemotherapy, the second major approach of the late 20th century.

Mukherjee also explains ancient views, Hippocrates’, Galen’s humors, Vasealius’ anatomy, Hunter’s stages, Lister’s antisepsis, and Röntgen’s X-rays, which became the third major approach. By 1980, however, the American “War on Cancer” had not been won.

Further advances in cellular biology and genetics would be needed to make targeted molecular therapy possible.  Mukherjee tells this complicated story clearly and engagingly, showing the human investigators to be personable and dogged in their pursuits.  

Another important approach is prevention. The biostatistical work of Doll and Hill, for example, showed the links between tobacco and lung cancer. Screening, such as Pap smears and mammograms, also saved lives, but the basic cellular understanding still eluded investigators.

The final 150 pages explain the search for and discovery of genetic factors, specifically oncogenes. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop were the leaders, winning a Nobel Prize in 1989. Bert Vogelstein, Judah Folkman, Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan took the work further, opening the doors for such drugs as Herceptin, Gleevec, and Avastin. 

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Annotated by:
Donley, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Summary:

In 1951 when Henrietta Lacks was dying of cancer in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins, cancer cells taken from her without her knowledge "became the first immortal human cells grown in a laboratory"(4).  Known as HeLa cells, they are still reproducing today and are used world wide in research for cancer, cloning, genetics, Parkinsons, and many technologies. Henrietta's family did not know she was the source of these immortal cells until scientists began testing the family members too.  Poor and black, they were very angry to find the white establishment had made fortunes using HeLa cells while the family got nothing for it and couldn't even get good health care. In her thorough and careful investigation, Rebecca Skloot interviewed the Lacks family; scientists, doctors, and others who worked with HeLa cells; historians; journalists; ethicists. This book traces the complex stages of her search for the truth about what happened to Henrietta Lacks, her HeLa cells, and her family.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In May of 1944 the author, a Hungarian Jewish physician, was deported with his wife and daughter by cattle car to the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. This memoir chronicles the Auschwitz experience, and the German retreat, ending a year later in Melk, Austria when the Germans surrendered their position there and Nyiszli obtained his freedom. The author describes in almost clinical detail and with alternating detachment and despair what transpired in the crematoria and the dissecting room during his tenure as chief pathologist working directly under Dr. Josef Mengele.

From the first, Nyiszli suspected that there were horrors emanating from the crematoria but he singled himself out from a group of physicians by deciding to "[break] ranks" when Mengele asked those with forensic training to identify themselves. This act secured his survival: the remaining physicians, none of whom stepped forward, all soon perished, while he was assigned to the Sonderkommandos--the prisoners who carried out the exterminations, and who were themselves regularly exterminated to prevent the truth from becoming known. He writes, "As chief physician of the Auschwitz crematoriums, I drafted numerous affidavits of dissection and forensic medicine findings which I signed with my own tattoo number."

At times self-congratulatory about his forensic expertise, at times forcing himself to witness atrocities which he could have avoided, occasionally finding a way to delay death for some of the inmates, Nyiszli was determined to record what he saw--to bear witness, were he to survive. Uncannily able to read a situation and take advantage of it, the author relates how he managed to get his family out of Auschwitz just before they were scheduled for annihilation. Even in the final weeks of the war, when he and thousands of prisoners trudged on foot for weeks with the retreating German army, many dying along the way, he remained shrewdly assertive--and lived.

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Extraordinary Measures, based on events in the life of John Crowley and his family, dramatizes the father's quest to find a cure for Pompe disease, a relatively rare genetic condition that afflicts two of his three children.  The quest brings into play three powerful, often competing human motives:  a father's love for his children, a scientist's pursuit of knowledge and recognition, and a corporation's mandate for profits.  Crowley (Brendan Fraser), an energetic marketing executive, and his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) are told that their children Megan (Meredith Droeger), age eight, and Patrick (Diego Velazquez), age six, have reached the upper limits of their life expectancies.

When Megan, an affectionate, playful, and clear-sighted child, is rushed to the hospital with symptomatic heart and respiratory failure, a young physician empathically encourages the parents to think of their only daughter's immanent death as a "blessing" that will end her suffering.  However, Megan survives.  "So I guess you could say we dodged that blessing," Crowley echoes back to the doctor.  Seeing Megan's will to live reinforces John's wish to make her well, and he abruptly abandons his promising career to find a medical researcher who can reverse Pompe's effects. 

Immersing himself in medical journals and websites, John discovers the intriguing research of Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford).  A cranky, renegade scientist who thinks to the beat of rock music blasting from a boom box, Stonehill has developed a cutting-edge theory about correcting the enzyme deficiency in the cells of people with Pompe, which gradually weakens skeletal, respiratory, and heart muscles.  However, to produce a treatment derived from his theory, he needs more funding.  John immediately creates a fund to support Pompe research, and he and Stonehill form a mutually exasperating partnership.  They lock horns with each other, venture capitalists, and finally a large genomic research corporation, Zymagen.

Despite the scientist's abrasive ways, Zymagen gives Stonehill a lab and creates employment for Crowley.  However, the two confront the company's culture of rigorous competition among its scientists and its focus on profit margins that ignore the fates of individual children.  When the Zymagen scientists develop a promising therapy, they decide to offer the treatment only to infants, who are most likely to experience benefits.  Disqualifying Crowley's children from the promising trials, this decision, combined with Crowley's obvious conflict of interest, creates the film's final obstacle.  Stonehill and the executives uncharacteristically collaborate to overcome it. 

This ending might seem implausibly neat, but it's consistent with the film's mostly evenhanded approach to the dilemmas of pursuing treatments for orphan diseases.  Toward the end, we witness even Crowley, albeit uncomfortably, reaching beyond his fatherly motives for the Pompe project and turning his argument for bringing the treatment to market from children to profits.  The longer the patients live, John assures the executives, the more treatments Zymagen will sell.  The film leaves space for viewers to ask to what extent Crowley's argument creates a fair compromise or opens an ethical quandary.  In a closing narration, the film moves beyond the fictionalized characters and plot to the real Crowley children and a tempered victory.  Yes, the Pompe treatment stopped the progression of the disease and improved Megan's and Patrick's hearts.  But it has not cured the Crowley children, and almost certainly it won't.   The treatments do, however, show more success when taken at the onset of symptoms.      

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Mendel's Dwarf

Mawer, Simon

Last Updated: Jun-15-2010
Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This novel interweaves facts about the history of genetics with compelling fictional characters and plots in two connected stories. The primary story traces the life and work of the fictional Benedict Lambert, brilliant 20th Century geneticist, and an achondroplastic dwarf; his research is to discover the gene mutation which has caused his condition. He is also the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel.

The life and genetic work of Gregor Mendel comprise the second story. Intersecting with Gregor Mendel's 19th Century scientific experiments to artificially fertilize pea plants is Lambert's affair with married librarian Jean Piercey. When Jean becomes pregnant, she decides on termination after learning from Benedict that there is "a fifty-fifty change of ending up like me . . . a second Benedict, another squat and crumpled creature betrayed by mutation and the courtly dance of chromosomes . . . " (180).

By the novel's end, Mendel's work has been published, and dismissed; Benedict Lambert has discovered the location of the gene mutation which causes achondroplastic dwarfism, publishes the results in Nature, and is asked to make a presentation on "the New Eugenics". Jean regrets the abortion, and wants Benedict's child, but a ?normal" one. In an attempt to help Jean in her quest, Benedict uses his genetic knowledge, his laboratory privileges, and his sperm without the knowledge or consent of Jean's husband.

In the lab with eight of Jean's fertilized embryos Lambert must decide: "Four of the embryos are proto-Benedicts, proto-dwarf; the other four are, for want of a better word normal. How should he choose?" The results of this scientific and personal act of fertilization are unexpected and tragic.

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