U geneticist speaks about gene targeting

By By Ted Thackeray

By Ted Thackeray

Renowned geneticist Mario Capecchi gave an open presentation about his current work-gene targeting-to the public on Tuesday evening at the Jerome Joseph Landa Memorial Lecture, held at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Capecchi, a professor of human genetics at the U’s School of Medicine, has been pioneering work on gene targeting in mouse cells for almost 30 years.

Gene targeting is the idea of taking a specific gene and enhancing or changing it in one way or another.

Capecchi chose mice because they are similarly structured to human beings.

A mouse has 99 percent of the same genetic material as humans, Capecchi said.

From their skeletal structure to their genetic composition, they are almost exactly identical to human beings.

Therefore, if something happens to a mouse-like a change in its skeletal structure-as a result to the experiment, there’s a 99 percent chance that the same change will occur in a human, he said.

“What makes us different from mice is the regulation of genes,” Capecchi said.

Capecchi went on to explain his work with the regulation of genes in mice.

There is a period of cell development where the cell hasn’t developed into a particular purpose or role. These non-characteristic cells-called chimera cells-have the opportunity to become whatever they want.

When scientists capture these “cells in limbo…we can change the genetic composition any way we want,” Capecchi said.

The cells then become Hox genes, which are involved in making organs and structured elements.

“They are the orchestrators,” Capecchi said. Once they are developed, a string of events occurs.

Capecchi’s work stops one gene from functioning in order to determine its function.

“We can find out what one Hox gene does by suppressing what another Hox gene does. Once we understand this,” Capecchi said, “we can make any type of body part we want.”

Capecchi pointed out that this would be extremely beneficial for medicinal purposes, as it would allow scientists to correct deformations or mutations.

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