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Panel clears testing of Lincoln's DNA.

Abraham Lincoln's tall, spindly stature and mildly deformed chest have led some modern-day scientists to suspect that he suffered from a genetic condition called Marfan's syndrome. This connective-tissue disorder, which afflicts more than 40,000 people in the United States, can lead to an elongated skeleton, eye abnormalities and a potentially lethal heart defect (SN: 8/4/90, p. 79). This month, an ethics committee gave researchers the go-ahead to extract DNA from Lincoln's remains in an attempt to resolve the historical enigma.

"Careful investigation of whether Mr. Lincoln had Marfan's syndrome may help counter problems of genetic discrimination in our society and will enhance the self-esteem [of persons with the disorder]," says geneticist Victor A. McKusick, who headed the nine-member ethics panel. The National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., set up the panel last February to consider a physician's request to test samples of Lincoln's DNA for Marfan's. The museum's collection includes small samples of blood, bone and hair removed from Lincoln's body during autopsy.

McKusick, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, says the potential for public good outweights any ethical reasons to prohibit the proposed tests. Because Lincoln has no living descendants, the tests would not violate anyone's privacy, nor would they precipitate a rash of genetic testing of other public figures, living or dead, McKusick asserts.

Ethicist Arthur Caplan disagrees with the panel's conclusion, arguing that public curiosity isn't sufficient reason to examine Lincoln's DNA. Genetic testing without explicit permission from the subject of the test sets a dangerous precedent, says Caplan, of the University of Minnesota's Center for Biomedical Ethics in Minneapolis.

At present, geneticists have no test for the Marfan's gene, but Darwin J. Prockop -- who made the original request for Lincoln's DNA samples -- says he and others are very close to pinpointing the gene's location. Prockop, of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, expects a genetic test -- and an answer to the Lincoln question -- to become available within two years.
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Title Annotation:National Museum of Health and Medicine panel approves testing of Abraham Lincoln's DNA to find out if he had Marfan's syndrome
Publication:Science News
Date:May 25, 1991
Words:332
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