||NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins speaks with nationally syndicated columnist Judy Foreman at a recent seminar for science writers on genome-wide association studies.
Communications and public affairs staff across NIH spend a good amount of their work days writing
about and explaining the health impact of the latest genetic discoveries
to journalists who cover biomedical
research. The hottest new field of genetic research-called genome-wide association studies, or GWAS-is presenting complex challenges to public affairs professionals and journalists,
alike. Instead of searching for a single gene that causes an inherited illness-the kind of genetic research that has dominated for decades-GWAS promise to pour out a flood of newly discovered genetic contributions
for common diseases. Already in the last few months numerous new genes for diabetes, heart disease, obesity and mental illness have been discovered with this approach.
Accurately reporting these new findings is difficult because the field speaks in a strange language-from SNPs (pronounced "snips," which stands for single nucleotide polymorphisms) to linkage disequilibrium-and relies on challenging
statistical concepts and hard-to-interpret results. With a flood of new studies
in the offing, including one released in the first week of May on diabetes in Science magazine from the intramural laboratory of Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, institute leadership decided to use the impending news as a hook to gather and educate leading science and health reporters, as well as NIH communications staff at an impromptu seminar on the subject.
To move quickly, NHGRI's communications office gathered a panel of experts and issued invitations to reporters who closely cover medical research, giving them only a few days notice about the timely seminar. One reporter later said NHGRI had such a good turnout because the journalists didn't have time to be distracted by other stories, given that results from GWAS seemed to be falling from the air lately.
Moreover, in addition to inviting reporters, NHGRI invited all 27 IC communications
offices to send science writers or other representatives; some two dozen
attended. Since many institutes are now funding GWAS, NHGRI leadership wanted to give the writers of future press releases the background needed to describe these complex findings accurately.
"This is a critical time in the development of this field," Collins said. "There is a great chance for misinterpretation, so we decided to offer writers a head start to understanding the science."
NHGRI held the daylong seminar at a downtown hotel in Washington, D.C. In addition to NIH communications staff, reporters from a variety of media attended,
including newspapers such as the Washington Post and Boston Globe; wire services
such as Reuters; major magazines such as Newsweek, Forbes, Science and Scientific American; and broadcasters such as ABC News, CNN and National Public
Radio. The seminar itself produced numerous stories, including one on a newly
discovered dog gene, a variation of which correlates with great speed in racing whippets.