Using genetics for human rights

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Using genetics for human rights World | Mary-Claire King works with Las Abuelas of Argentina to reunite captive children with their relatives Bryn Nelson Contributing Writer

Dr. Mary-Claire King remembers the names clearly. She knows the stories associated with them by heart ‹ too few with happy endings.But perhaps most striking are the pictures of the children themselves, many of whom have only grandmothers left.“The children's parents would be my age had they lived,” King said.King, the American Cancer Society professor of medical genetics at the UW, is perhaps best known for her role in identifying BRCA1, the gene responsible for many inherited breast and ovarian cancers.On Wednesday night, however, King spoke to a spellbound standing-room-only audience about her work with Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, the grandmothers of the missing children of Argentina.In her talk, co-sponsored by the Puget Sound Biotechnology Society and American Women in Science, King told of the military junta in Argentina, which from 1975-1983 was responsible for the disappearance of an estimated 15,000 Argentineans. Most have never been heard from again.According to King, the subversives targeted by the Argentinean military group included, in addition to various leftist groups, “professors, journalists, nutritionists, statisticians, microbiologists ‹ in short, probably pretty much everybody in this room.”These Argentineans were tortured and brutally murdered in hundreds of detention centers around the country, King said.In many cases, young children and infants born to the captive mothers were given to military families to raise as their own. Armed with phony birth certificates and a military cover-up, Argentinean authorities did little to restore these children to their true relatives until Las Abuelas. And King.The grandmothers of the missing children had been secretly collecting information about children thought to be sons and daughters of the Argentineans who disappeared.They gathered tips from school secretaries, janitors, released prisoners, nurses and others suspicious of the children's true identities.They stored the information in black binders in an apartment-turned-office in Buenos Aires. Every Thursday, the grandmothers marched in a central plaza, demanding that the government restore their grandchildren to them.In addition, the grandmothers began looking for a geneticist to aid them. King said because of her activism at Berkeley, “it didn't take them long to find out about me.”In June of 1984, King and other forensic anthropologists attended a meeting near Buenos Aires with Las Abuelas and other parents of missing adults. At the meeting, which was held to discuss the science of human identification, King heard the story of one of the missing children and immediately acted.With the assistance of the grandmothers, King used the HLA-serotyping system (which looks for proteins in blood cells that are fairly unique among related individuals) to establish a probability that each child was related to his or her biological grandmothers and other relatives. “We don't care who this child isn't,” King emphasized. “We only care who this child is.”The first major victory came on Christmas Eve in 1984, when the Supreme Court of Argentina ruled that Paula Logares, one of the missing children who had been positively identified by HLA-serotyping, must be returned to her true relatives.So far, out of 221 cases where missing children have been seen alive at least once, 59 have been returned or have returned on their own to their true relatives and abuelas. The successes of King's work have led to other requests for help by such groups as the United Nations and the U.S. Army. Most of these requests have been to positively identify the remains of war victims. King's lab serves as the DNA Identification Lab for the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal.With new developments in molecular biotechnology over the last decade, it is now possible to identify a deceased human body based on DNA extracted from relatives' blood and on even minute quantities of DNA extracted from teeth or bone fragments of a skeleton.This work has taken King, her colleagues and Michelle Harvey, a post-doctoral researcher in King's lab, to projects in countries such as Cambodia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Bosnia.The current problem, says King, is funding this detective work. Originally funded by a grant from the Human Genome Project's ELSI program (Ethical, Legal and Social Issues), King and colleagues have since relied on funds secured by Las Abuelas in Argentina and from organizations such as the United Nations through Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International.King said the current funding situation is very much hand to mouth. She said she fears that the lack of funding may force her to make some difficult choices in the near future about which requests to grant.Nevertheless, the work is continuing, even amid potential threats to the researchers involved. Soon after King arrived at the UW in 1995 from the University of California at Berkeley, she was approached by a UW surgeon who was in Argentina when King was doing her work with Las Abuelas.He told her that she was lucky to be alive. While in Argentina, he had heard of a plot by the military to abduct King.“He told me the day, he told me where I was staying,” King said.King isn't sure why the military never followed through with its plan.Still, she shrugs it off.“You just focus on the project,” King said. “You just block out all of the peripheral craziness around you. You don't think about it at the time. “You just do your work.”

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