Sunday, February 24, 2008

AD Test; Pressures of Conformity

The latest issue of Science has a number of interesting articles. The News of the Week Piece "Once Shunned, Test for Alzheimer's Risk Headed to Market" by Jennifer Couzin details a new genetic test for AD that is set to come to market:

A Pennsylvania company is preparing to market a genetic test that will tell healthy people whether they are at increased risk for developing Alzheimer's disease. The move comes more than 15 years after the critical gene, APOE, was linked to Alzheimer's, and it is getting a mixed response from researchers. Some of them point out that the test could upset people without giving any therapeutic benefit. On the other hand, as the company says, the information has its uses, and research has shown that receiving a bad result is not as devastating as once feared.

The test will be offered by Smart Genetics in Philadelphia, likely starting next month. For $399, healthy people will give a saliva sample and learn whether they have a risk of Alzheimer's that's 3 to 15 times higher than normal. The analysis is based on variations in the APOE gene, which is widely agreed to play a role in Alzheimer's risk and heart disease.

And there is also an interesting News Focus piece entitled “Crossing the Divide” which details the immense social pressures even scientists face as they attempt to square their personal beliefs with the findings of science. Which makes the case for getting serious about tackling these issues all the more important. Here is a sample from the story about paleontologist Stephen Godfrey:

On a clear January day, Stephen Godfrey is dressed for fossil-hunting: frayed baggy jeans, a puffy green vest, and a leather jacket that's seen better times. A paleontologist and curator at the modest Calvert Marine Museum here, Godfrey frequents the nearby Calvert Cliffs, which rise from the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay and hold everything from ancient shark teeth to dolphin skulls. "You start collecting them because, well, they're beautiful," he says of his beloved fossils.

It was the study of fossils that, 25 years ago, set Godfrey on an anguished path. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in Quebec, Canada, embracing a 6000-year-old Earth where Noah's flood laid down every fossil, Godfrey began probing the underpinnings of creationism in graduate school. The inconsistencies he found led step by step, over many years, to a staunch acceptance of evolution. With this shift came rejection from his religious community, estrangement from his parents, and, perhaps most difficult of all, a crisis of faith that endures.

Powerful emotions bind together young-Earth creationists, members of a movement making inroads from Kenya to Kentucky, where a $27 million Creation Museum opened last year. Scientists and educators have responded mainly by boosting biology's place in the classroom and building rational arguments for evolution. But reason alone is rarely enough to sway believers. That's because letting go of creationism carries enormous emotional risks, including a loss of identity and community and an agonizing, if illusory, choice: science or faith.