UMass Amherst Scientist to Appear in Upcoming Biotechnology Series on Public Television

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts professor James Robl is scheduled to appear on "Innovation," a three-part series slated to air later this month on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The series, which was produced at WNET New York, focuses on advances in biomedical technology. Robl, an animal reproductive biologist in the University’s veterinary and animal sciences department,appears in the first segment, "Cracking the Code," which will be broadcast beginning Tues., Dec. 16, in some markets, and Tues., Dec. 23 elsewhere.

Narrated by actor Martin Sheen, the series explores the ways that biomedical advances affect people at all stages of life: infancy,adulthood, and old age. "Cracking the Code," the segment on fetal development and infancy, follows two couples whose children were born with a severe and often fatal genetically transmitted illness, epidermolysis bulosa. The disease prevents the development of healthy skin. For children who suffer from the disease, it is the equivalent of living with third-degree burns; the chances of these couples having another child afflicted with the disease is one in four. Both couples want to have more children, but are concerned about the children’s quality of life. The program follows their choice to turn to a procedure called "pre-implantation genetic diagnosis," or PDG, in which eggs are taken from the mother’s body and fertilized in vitro. Then a single cell is removed from each three-day-old embryo and tested for the genetic disorder. The genetically sound embryos are returned to the mother’s body.

Robl’s research in genetic engineering and cloning - currently using cows as subjects - goes a step further. He and his department colleague, Steven Stice, have produced clones in which portions of the genetic code have been changed, so that any offspring will have a desirable characteristic that its donor lacked, such as disease resistance. This work is aimed at providing ways for humans to fight disease, Robl says. Biotechnology could be used to fight such disorders as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, for instance. Other uses could include the development of genetically altered organs that could be "programmed" to prevent the patient’s body from rejecting them. Robl and Stice perform this research under the auspices of Advanced Cell Technology, a research company with close ties to the University.

The medical implications of these new techniques are enormous: "We can insert genes. We can remove genes. We can mix and match genes. We can cause genetic change at our discretion," says Robl."We now have the ability to determine our own genetic destiny. We as a society have to decide what that destiny is going to be."

NOTE: "Cracking the Code" will air on Tues., Dec. 16, on WGBH Boston, and on Tues., Dec. 23, on WGBY Springfield.