Genetic Criminals

A DNA researcher tracks down the causes of hereditary illnesses

"I have it, my daughter has it and soon my grandchildren will have it," the distraught woman said.

Thus began a new project: the search for the defective gene that causes idiopathic scoliosis. "Despite the fact it has been around forever," the doctor says, "we've never been able to determine what causes it--thus the term 'idiopathic.' All we really know is that it typically seems to affect females in their teen years.

She's convinced the technology now exists for more rapid advancement, not only in the discovery of cell disorders that cause diseases but in finding a way to reverse the degeneration of cells that lead to such common ailments as hearing loss and lower back pain. "During the aging process," she explains, "certain cells simply begin to wear out. That, for instance, is why as we grow older we have a harder time hearing. I find it exciting to think there is a real possibility that process can be reversed. It's targets like that researchers are going to be aiming at in the next 10 to 20 years."

It is something she wants to be around for. And while a hint of impatience occasionally creeps into her conversation, she expresses confidence that the rapidly improving technology will, just as it has done for criminologists, lead her and her fellow researchers to the answers they're seeking. Already, doctors from throughout the country and as far away as Italy are contacting Scottish Rite and Wise about the advancements being made at the Dallas facility.

As she continues her quest for new knowledge, daily searching for and closing in on the microscopic Gordian knots that cause human pain and misery, the mother of two has come to a greater appreciation of her own family's health. She and her orthodontist husband, John, regularly hike down to a spring-fed creek near their rural home outside Lucas, north of Dallas. There, joined by sports-minded son Ben, 12, and musically inclined daughter Madeline, 9, they fish for perch in the creek that winds through their property. "What I wish for every day," their mother says, "is that every child, regardless of the cruel hand dealt them at birth, might one day be able to enjoy the same simple pleasures my children do."

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