The Stuff That Novels Are Made Of

This morning, I learned in an obit that Dr. Yury Verlinsky, the man who invented pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, died in Chicago on July 16 at the age of 65.

Dr. Verlinsky was the first person to realize that an unfertilized human egg could be genetically assayed in vitro prior to fertilization and implantation by using the egg’s polar body, the remnant of genetic material discarded by a maturing egg in preparation for eventually receiving a sperm’s genetic load. This allowed him, and other reproductive medicine physicians who followed his lead, to safely vet the eggs of women who were heterozygotes for a genetic disease to find the eggs that were missing the defect and use them to produce disease-free children.

courtesy Flickr user Krisma_Harja

courtesy Flickr user Krisma_Harja

Another obit, first printed yesterday in the Los Angeles Times and written by Thomas H. Maugh II, contained this incredible vignette from Dr. Verlinsky on how he stumbled on this method:

In 1989, “Verlinsky had gotten the idea for pre-implantation genetic screening while viewing a 1935 Joan Miro painting in a Jerusalem art gallery. The painting featured two disks, one red and one yellow, floating in space, with a small, round black object under the red one. The disks reminded him of human eggs, perhaps with one changing into the other by ejecting the black object. In a flash of insight, he took out a business card and wrote “polar bodies” on the back of it.”

I vividly recall hearing a report by Dr. Verlinsky on applying this method clinically at an annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Baltimore in the early 1990s. His talk was breathtaking, as well as a bit hard to follow as his excited words came out quickly and with a heavy Russian accent. But the diagrams and data on his slides were clear. It was one of those electric talks at a meeting, with a palpable feeling in the large, crowded hall that this was a major, practice-changing  advance.

Dr. Verlinsky went on to one-up this approach by safely removing a single cell from a very early embryo for the pre-implantation genetic analysis. As the L.A. Times obit and others made clear, he also got involved in some  ethical controversies by applying these techniques that skirted the edge of eugenics, and that gave families healthy children who could supply body parts for their diseased sibs. Jodi Picoult owes Dr. Verlinsky for a career’s worth of plot devices. 

—Mitchel Zoler, posted at 11:50 AM EDT (on Twitter @mitchelzoler) 

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Filed under Genomic medicine, Medical Genetics, Obstetrics and Gynecology

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