What if art cured disease?

Francis Collins (geneticist)

Dr. Francis Collins (Image via Wikipedia)

If you believe science and art are opposite or incompatible, think again. Consider instead any of the world’s 60 children suffering from Progeria, a genetic condition that causes their bodies to age at a rate seven times faster than the normal human body. For these children, life expectancy is about 12 to 14 years. The disease is incurable.

So far.

In 2003, these children and their families got a glimpse of hope when they heard this news:

On April 16, 2003, a press conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to announce the discovery of the Progeria gene. Leading the announcement was PRF Medical Director Dr. Leslie Gordon. The panel of speakers included Dr. Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome Project, Dr. W. Ted Brown, world expert on Progeria, and John Tacket, PRF’s Youth Ambassador. (text from the website of the Progeria Research Foundation)

Did you catch the name Dr. Francis Collins? He spoke at JMU over the weekend as part of the university’s yearlong exploration into the convergence of science and art. On Saturday, following his talk and a performance of by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Ferocious Beauty: Genome, a multimedia dance inspired by the mapping of the human genome, Dr. Collins, scientist, and Liz Lerman, dancer, sat down to discuss the intersection of art and science. What they had to say was revealing and inspiring.

Dr. Collins, who now heads the National Institutes of Health, explained how the discovery of the Progeria gene began as a leap of faith, the kind artists take whenever they explore. One of Dr. Collins’ post-docs took a stab at a hypothesis. In the end, the hypothesis was utterly wrong, but serendipitously the gene was discovered. “One (genetic) letter out of three billion,” Collins said. It was the courage to be creative, the ability to wonder ‘what if’ that inspired the science, and in this case with a spectacular result.

Science is not all about standing on firm ground. It is instead about thinking imaginatively — considering, attempting and reaching beyond what one might see as logical. Herein is the critical juncture of science with art. Dance master Liz Lerman, whose company has collaborated with JMU dance students throughout the year, pointed out in the discussion how it is important to leap into the unknown. Whether perfect or not, a reach, a dance, an experiment — the leap into the creative — “puts something in the room.” Something you can work with. That’s exactly what happened with the Progeria gene. Finding it was unexpected. It did not begin with a fact-on-fact process; it began with a creative jump. It began with a ‘what if?’  And in a beautiful way, it found a solution that art engendered.

To read more about the groundbreaking research in Progeria, explore the website of the Progeria Research Foundation. Here you can find the announcement about the discovery of the Progeria gene. http://www.progeriaresearch.org/progeria_gene_discovered.html

And to learn more about the yearlong Dance of Art and Science, the innovative collaboration among artists, scientists and educators, go to the JMU website:  http://www.jmu.edu/

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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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