Study Genetic Engineering in USA
"Entrance into the biotechnology field can begin right after college with the right degree program"
In only a few legal cases out of roughly 3,000 has evidence from DNA fingerprinting been "thrown out of a courtroom", Biology Professor David Koetje remarked to his listeners at a recent discussion group of college science faculty.
Dr. Koetje was the featured speaker, and he was talking about the somewhat simple procedure of matching select pieces of genetic information (deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA) to their host organism.
He and his undergraduates do DNA fingerprinting routinely as part of their required work in the courses he teaches at the State University of New York College of Fredonia.
It was in this biology department that the first undergraduate major in genetic engineering was created in New York State. Courses like the ones Dr. Koetje is teaching now didn’t exist at Fredonia 20 years ago.
Study Genetic Engineering in USA
Virtually all areas of the life sciences are being affected by the application of genetic engineering in solving biological problems. The need for personnel trained in recombinant DNA techniques continues to expand as it becomes a key tool in solving problems in medicine, agriculture, environmental science, industry, forensics and basic biology. This new science is playing a central role in virtually all aspects of modern biological research, scientists say.
The basic steps students learn as they acquire skills in cloning, or recombing genes, are relatively simple, and are being taught more frequently at the undergraduate level in college campuses, but not all biology programs offer this program of study as a major.
About a decade ago, DNA fingerprinting was first used as evidence in a court trial. Since then, there have been thousands of cases and usually the evidence has been upheld and "very enlightening", Dr. Koetje said. DNA fingerprinting has also been used as evidence to "unlink" a person charged with a crime, and has freed people from prison.
Perhaps more importantly, however, recombinant gene technology is enabling scientists to find cures for disease. In 1980, a small company called in Genentech in South San Fransico, Calif., hired a young scientist, Diane Pennica, who had just finished a post-doctoral assignment at Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, and was only a few years out of her Ph.D. program at the University of Rhode Island.
She possessed research, teaching, and publication experience in a new type of science called recombinant DNA technology, which is where Genentech was focusing its work.
"When I started at Genentech there were 60 people there," she said. Sixteen years later, there were more than 2,000, and the company credits Dr. Pennica with one of its first breakthroughs in creating a genetically engineered drug, Activase.
Genetech’s mission was to use biotechnology to discover new products to treat human diseases, and one of the first things Dr. Pennica worked on was heart disease, the single largest killer of men and woman in the U.S.
In a normal artery, blood cells flow freely, and small clots are normally dissolved by a human anticoagulant called tissue plasminogen activator, or t-PA. Unfortunately some people have a very extensive build-up of plaque and cholesterol which clogs their arteries, and a small clot can become dangerous. The body’s normal supply of t-PA can’t clear up the clots fast enough when clogged arteries are involved.
When Dr. Pennica went to Genentech, scientists knew that the body made t-PA, but that it didn’t make enough to save someone from a heart attack. "So the question became then, could recombinant DNA techniques be used to produce large amounts of t-PA?"
Dr. Pennica said. Her first goal was to try and determine the structure of t-PA, and then secondly, try and produce it in large amounts by cloning so it could be used to quickly dissolve blood clots to treat heart attack patients.
"We had no idea whether this was possible to do," she recalled. "No substance this large had ever been cloned before, and some sceptics said it couldn’t be done."
Four years later, in 1982, the work was successfully achieved, but half of that time was just spent looking for the piece of human DNA that carried the information for t-PA. "It was like finding a needle in a haystack", she said.
T-PA was the largest protein that had ever been cloned up to that point. After a few years of clinical trials, Genentech found that, when t-PA was injected intravenously into the arm, it dissolved clogged arteries in about 90 minutes and restored blood flow to the heart. It has become a common treatment in emergency rooms throughout the world.
To a molecular biologist with the specialised skills of biotechnology, the solution to many health and disease issues is simple in theory. Even in light of her publicised work in co-discovering a drug that offers life to victims of deadly heart disease, Dr. Pennica sees herself first and foremost as a scientist, equal among colleagues who have enjoyed far less fame. She says the secret is to "work hard, harder than anybody else."
Dr. Pennica acquired her biotechnology skills right at the dawn of the technology, in graduate school, but now there are some degree programs available to students at the undergraduate level, including the one at SUNY Fredonia.
There, the B.S. degree in Recombinant Gene Technology paves the way for students to directly enter the exciting areas of molecular biology and biotechnology, teaching them the skills of DNA cloning, nucleic acid hybridisation, gel transfers, and DNA sequencing.
All of these skills form the basis of the Human Genome project and other molecular genetic research. When co-ordinated into a B.S. program, they give the student a broad, liberal arts education in the biological sciences that makes him or her an outstanding candidate for graduate work, entrance to a medical degree program, or into a laboratory as a research technician.
An undergraduate research experience is also considered essential to the educational preparation in recombinant gene technology. Students considering degree programs should look for those which offer at least one year of undergraduate research in the area of molecular biology, and where opportunities exist for students to write and present papers at pre-professional conferences.
When undergraduates team up with their professors to conduct research in the lab or in the field, their college degree represents much more than the finishing of the required courses.
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