A fellowship and a double helix

genetic-counseling1In 1952, James Watson was an unknown scientist who applied to the March of Dimes for a fellowship proposing research on X-ray diffraction patterns of proteins and nucleic acids. Knowing that the March of Dimes funded basic science as well as polio prevention, Watson hoped that the grant he would receive might enable him to conduct a year of research and cover his lab expenses. His modest grant award of $5,678, roughly equivalent to $50,000 today, led to one of the most momentous discoveries of the age. On April 25, 1953 Watson and his colleague Francis Crick published “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in the journal Nature. The field of molecular genetics was launched. They had discovered the double-helical structure of DNA.

Much has been written about Watson and Crick’s famous discovery, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1962. Their path-breaking research vastly expanded the field of genetics, leading to knowledge unimaginable in their day. Their accomplishment also prefigured what the March of Dimes would do next. After funding the vaccines that brought the scourge of polio to a halt, the Foundation turned to the riddle of birth defects, knowing that the keys of genetics would open further doors to this intractable problem.

By the 1960s, the March of Dimes sponsored birth defects and clinical genetics conferences to keep medical professionals up-to-date with progress in the field. We helped to develop a universal standardized language (the karyotype) to describe human chromosomes. At a March of Dimes conference in 1969, Dr. Victor McKusick proposed that science might create a molecular map of all genes. His idea sparked the March of Dimes to organize a series of human gene mapping workshops that ultimately led to the Human Genome Project of the 1990s.

Our interest in genetics goes beyond science itself to assisting individuals and families. We have developed the field of genetic counseling to help parents and parents-to-be understand the risks of inherited disorders. We helped to establish the first master’s degree program in genetic counseling at a U.S. college. In the 1980s we sponsored an educational program on Genetic Decision Making and Pastoral Care, enabling clergy from different religions to understand the complexities of genetics in order to give appropriate counseling to concerned families. At the same time, our funding of scientific research has remained fundamental. Our grantees have identified the gene for Fragile X Syndrome and have created therapies for other life-threatening disorders.

As we note the 60th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s famous article on the double helix of DNA, we look forward to a time when birth defects and premature birth have receded into the past just as polio has done. Our steadfast commitment to “stronger, healthier babies” is grounded in the building blocks of genetics that help us identify the causes of disease.

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