New discipline in the Faculty of Medicine

It's in the genes

(July 22, 1999, Gazette)

By Albert Johnson

At the March meeting of the Board of Regents the university's governing body approved the new discipline of genetics in the Faculty Medicine. The move was the final step in establishing the new discipline, a concept that was passed by the Faculty Council of Medicine in May 1998. Dr. Ban Younghusband has been appointed interim chair.

"The study of genetics is very much an interdisciplinary effort," said Dr. Younghusband. "And it is difficult to separate clinical practice from research."

Dr. Younghusband explained that hereditary diseases affect every system in the body which means that practitioners in all medical disciplines are confronted on a regular basis with diseases that have a genetic component. Studies indicate that 50 per cent of all pediatric admissions to hospitals and 15 per cent of adult admissions are for illnesses that have a genetic component.

Research into the genetic nature of specific diseases requires doctors to work closely with patients to develop family histories. Tracing occurrences of a disease in the family tree and analyzing DNA samples is a large part of genetic research. Illnesses that are triggered genetically can be complex especially when more than one gene or a combination of genes and environment is the cause.

"Researching the medical history of the family members of a patient with a disease that may have a genetic link is a time consuming endeavour," said Dr. Younghusband. "Research tied this closely to patients and their families also carries with it numerous ethical issues."

Researchers at Memorial are currently trying to determine the genetic factors in a number of diseases that include various forms of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia and preeclampsia (hypertension experienced by some women during pregnancy).

One genetics course is being taught in the undergraduate program in the Faculty of Medicine. In this course students study medical genetics, modes of inheritance, and the role genetics plays in disease. Medical students study the clinical aspects of genetics as part of courses offered in other disciplines.