Medical genetics marks quarter century at UBC

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Held together with scotch tape and baling wire is how one of the original faculty members describes the early days of UBC's Medical Genetics Dept., which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.

The first such department at a Canadian university, it started with just six faculty members, very limited funding and facilities consisting of a cramped 36 square metres on the top floor of an apartment building close to Vancouver Hospital.

The department has grown to include 35 faculty members and 50 graduate students in sites at the Pt. Grey campus and at B.C.'s Children's Hospital. Department researchers currently attract more than $9.6 million in funding annually, a tenfold increase since 1980.

"There's been an explosion in knowledge over the last quarter century," says Dr. Jan Friedman, department head. "We're just starting to exploit the tools we have to combat genetic disease."

Friedman attributes the growth to the power of contemporary molecular biological technologies such as gene sequencing, and collaborations that focus resources, such as the Genome Project, an international effort to decipher the entire human genetic code.

Inherited or spontaneous changes or mutations in the body's genes cause genetic disease. Illnesses such as Huntington's, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, breast cancer and Alzheimer's all have a genetic component.

UBC's Medical Genetics Dept. is a world leader in predictive testing for people at risk of developing genetic disease, Friedman says. The department has also made major contributions to the development of prenatal diagnoses such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, a process that analyses placental tissue to determine the health of the fetus.

As well, UBC genetic scientists developed data used world-wide to determine the frequency of genetic disease in the general population.

Molecular genetics, or the investigation of disease at the most fundamental chemical level, and genomics, which is the study of genetic material as a whole, will be key areas of growth for the department, Friedman says.

Other developments include the new graduate program in genetic counselling that helps individuals and families deal with inherited illness. Also, there is a rapidly developing emphasis on medical ethics within the department as scientists' ability to manipulate genes increases.

The department marked its 25th anniversary with a two-day scientific symposium for about 150 former and current department members. The agenda included presentations of scientific papers as well as overviews of the department's history and future.