Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
October 22, 2014
Deception in DNA
In recent years, there has been a surge in awareness brought to breast cancer. Many people have been or have known someone that has been impacted by it. Women are instructed to get regular mammograms and there are constantly fundraisers being held that raise money to go toward research. Some of that research has led to the founding of a variant gene in Latina women that causes them to be“40 percent less likely to have breast cancer,” according to Anahad O’Connor in the article “Genetic Variant May Shield Latinas from Breast Cancer.” Geneticists involved in the study are excited about possible advances in finding a cure or treatment it could trigger. The scientists studying this gene may be failing to look at the bigger picture, though, and further research outside of the gene itself may be needed.
While this may seem like a large step in the right direction, Lewontin, in “Biology as Ideology,” would suggest that the results of the study are not as helpful as they may seem. One thing that the study cannot tell us is why the gene leads to a reduced chance of breast cancer in some women holding the gene but not in others. That is because the variant gene may not be the cause. While it is believed to be linked to a change in estrogen, it is not correct to say that the gene is the only thing causing the difference in estrogen levels. Lewontin warns against assuming “that there is a major cause and the others are only subsidary” (Lewontin, 41). Anything from weight to blood pressure can also impact estrogen, so it is unfair to assume that the gene is the only cause of the decrease in susceptibility to breast cancer. This clarification allows us to see the limitations of studies that isolate genetic sequences in an attempt to find treatments for various diseases and cancers. While the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, Dr. Otis Brawley, claims that the reason some women still get breast cancer is that they have “’something else that cancels [the gene] out’” (O’Connor), that is not the only explanation. Perhaps the other causes are the reasons women are not getting breast cancer, which explains why breast cancer is still the norm for women who have the gene. Lewontin argues that organisms are a “consequence of a developmental history that results from…internal and external sources” (Lewontin, 63), so he would claim that breast cancer is not singly caused by the inner workings of the women’s genes. While the gene may be a factor, it might be meaningless unless studied in conjunction with other factors.
There is also importance in knowing that although there is a difference in genes between Latina women and women of other ethnicities, the reasons for that difference are unknown. Without knowing the causes of variation in genes, scientists are limited with what they may be able to do with their knowledge. One of the only ways currently available to implement their findings to help people would be in transporting these variant genes to other women. However, Lewontin warns us about possible downfalls to this as well. Not only will somatic cells be impacted, but “the germ cells of…reproductive organs” will be changed as well (Lewontin, 70). This, in turn, can cause unfavorable changes in the genes of the women’s children. “Any miscalculations of the effects of the implanted DNA would be wreaked on our descendants to the remotest time” (Lewontin, 70), so unpredictability is an issue. If variant genes are incompatible with genes or proteins in the children or grandchildren of women implanted with the variant genes, scientists don’t know how their bodies would react.
All of this leads us to understand how little knowing about genes can help in finding the answer to breast cancer. While this might be a foundation for further studies, the discovery of this variant gene in Latina women and the correlation to a decrease in breast cancer among these women is not sufficient to come up with a suitable cure or treatment. Lewontin would say that the geneticists involved in this study are failing to make the distinction “between correlation and identity,” making the mistake of assuming that “it is the correlation that indicates the role of genes” (Lewontin, 34). The excitement of advances in breast cancer studies is clouding the scientists’ judgment. There is a misconception regarding new knowledge about dangerous things. Knowledge makes things less scary sometimes, but not less dangerous. We must understand that simply knowing the correlation between the variant gene and a decrease in breast cancer exists does not mean that it will be able to help us treat breast cancer. Therefore, with this in mind, we should see the information introduced in this article as more of an area of interest than as a possible means to a cure.
Development in genetics can often cause people to get excited about the possibilities of eliminating issues such as breast cancer, but it is important to stay grounded and realize the limitations of some genetic studies. Lewontin helps us realize that not everything is as simple as it seems. The variant genes may appear to be the answer, but they could only be a partial answer or possibly not even that. The connections between the variant gene and a reduced risk of breast cancer may be the basis for more studies, but it is important to note that they do not provide us all of the answers.
Lewontin, R. (1992). Biology as ideology. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
Natural Hormones, (2014). High Estrogen Levels | Natural-Hormones.net. [online] Available at: http://www.natural-hormones.net/estrogen-high-levels.htm [Accessed 21 Oct. 2014].
O'Connor, A. (2014). Genetic Variant May Shield Latinas From Breast Cancer. The New York Times. [online] Available at: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/genetic-variant-may-shield-latinas-from-breast-cancer/?_php=true&_type=blogs&module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A12%22%7D&_r=0 [Accessed 21 Oct. 2014].