Rhodes scholar Pardis Sabeti graduated with her medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 2006, earning the school's highest honor - the third woman ever to do so. She's also the lead singer and songwriter of the band, Thousand Days, who uses her music to make science appealing to children, especially, girls. As a graduate student at Oxford University in England, Sabeti developed a way to detect natural selection at the level of individual genes. In Eric Lander's lab at the Broad Institute, she scanned the entire human genome to figure out which genes have changed within the last 10,000 years and which have spread rapidly in the human gene pool due to natural selection. With these tools, geneticists can study how cultural and environmental changes have affected the evolution of the human genome. Now Sabeti is applying this technique to her true passion: understanding the interplay between humans and the pathogens that cause diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and leprosy. Her work - published in December 2007 - revealed genes involved in drug resistance and in evading the immune system, giving researchers potential targets for new therapies and vaccines.
Pardis Sabeti: Well, so I think what genomics-- Let’s see. Actually-- So-- Yeah. I don’t know if it’s in my dream world. I would say I think what will likely happen, right, is that the technology is moving so fast that likely in the next five to ten years sequencing will become so easy and facile that everyone will be sequenced and we’ll start sequencing and lots of different organisms on earth and we’ll understand everything that is- exists in our genomes. Right. And that’s only just the tip of the iceberg ‘cause there’s so much other stuff going on that we are yet to understand, but the genome will tell us whether all the different variations that are important and that have evolved over time, that even if they haven’t actually morphed through chance even that affect different physical characteristics are risks for diabetes and hypertension and macular degeneration and that they’ll basically point us to all of the different important pathways involved in disease and survival.
And from there actually the question just begins because then we’ll have to understand well, what to make of all those changes and what can we do biologically to help that. So if it’s something that- we find something important in diabetes how do we develop therapeutics for it? If it’s something that it important for malaria, how do we- that protects from malaria, how do we mimic that therapeutic? So it’s really just a point of launching, a launching point to then- for a lot more exploration, but- and there are definitely-- So it’s an exciting time to understand how- and how we’re all related, how those- how the- how- what are all the variations that we have, how are those variations important functionally?
And I think that the most important thing is through that process that we have really clear ethical and cultural standards, that we do it in an appropriate way. So I remember in that book as I- in the movie Contact Jodie Foster’s asked, “What was the one question that you would ask?” I thought it was really-- A lot of times movies have really poignant moments but they said, “If you got to meet the higher life, what would you ask?” and the question was “How did you do it? How did you go through this transition to technology and not destroy yourself?” And I think that that’s an important question to ask all the time is how do we go through these points where we have all of this information and we don’t somehow use it in a way that’s dangerous?
Question: How do you maintain ethics in your research?
Pardis Sabeti: So what is good is that the scientific community is- a few things that have happened recently have pointed us to the dangers of this kind of information and so there are a lot of people that are circling around the ethical issues of understanding ourselves and the differences between human populations and information about our own genes that could be important. So yeah, I think that there are a lot of people taking it very seriously and so- and more and more ethics training is coming in to graduate work so that-- both in the ethics of how we conduct research and then the ethics of the information that we get.
So I think there’s a lot of people focused on it. My-- The institute I’m at, the Broad Institute, I’ve always really respected the way that they do it. They are very in to the public- making all of their data publicly available, engaging the community. We put a lot of our efforts towards communications so that people understand. We never-- We try not to obviously overstate what we do. We try to engage the community and be careful about a lot of cultural sensitivity so I appreciate that I would say Eric Lander and David Altshuler, who are leading in these efforts of studying genomics and human variation, take it very, very seriously and are very cautious about it and- but it’s not just there. That’s just where I work but a lot of people in the community that find it important.
Recorded on: June 29, 2008