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Dr French Anderson and Gene Therapy

written by: Balachandar Radhakrishnan•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 9/9/2009

Dr. F. Anderson is one of the most famous personalities in science. He was a pioneer of human gene therapy and conducted the first human gene therapy trial. He is also widely known as the father of gene therapy.

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    Who is Dr. French Anderson

    Dr. William French Anderson is a world renowned scientist often referred to as the father of gene therapy. He was born on December 31st, 1936 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Anderson was born into an educated family, his father was a civil engineer and his mother was a journalist and professor. His schooling was at the Tulsa Central High School where he displayed skill in track, theater, and debate. Although he had rewarding academic years he was socially not at ease with his classmates. As a child he also had a stuttering problem which also played into the the socially awkward kid that he was. After subsequent help from the school psychologist he overcame his weaknesses and started having remarkable improvements in his social circles.

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    Education and Research

    He later entered Harvard University, where he performed admirably in his academic career as well as on the track. During his time at Harvard he also outlined a method of performing multiplication and division with Roman numerals. During a visit to Cambridge, he met Kathy Duncan whom he later married. The couple graduated, and Anderson joined the National Institutes of Health where he worked on gene therapy. His idea was to artificially introduce a working copy of a gene into a cell which had a defective one. Initial attempts involved microinjections where the DNA was injected physically into the host, however this method failed.

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    Gene Therapy Research

    In 1984, Richard Mulligan devised a method to introduce foreign DNA into cells using a retrovirus. Anderson saw this as a blessing and wanted to try this out in clinical trials, for which he applied to the NIH’s Human Gene Therapy Subcommittee to allow him to proceed. The committee however declined his request but did offer him a hearing to put his case.

    He then managed to convince the committee members to grant him the permission to go ahead with his experiments. In 1989 he conducted the first human gene therapy safety test where a harmless marker was injected into a 52 year old man. The test succeeded and the following year he treated a 4 year old girl, Ashanti DeSilva, who was suffering from an immune disorder caused by a defective ADA gene. At the time the only solution was to treat the patient with an artificial PEG-ADA supplement, though Anderson set out to make a more permanent cure. He introduced a healthy functioning copy of the gene using a modified retrovirus.

    Presently DeSilva is alive and well, but still taking her PEG-ADA supplements, the issue is still not clear as to whether it was the gene therapy treatment carried out by Anderson or the supplement itself that has been keeping her going all these years. The trial received a mixed reception, but nonetheless it was a shot in the arm for gene therapy enthusiasts all over the world.

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    Allegations & Conviction of Anderson

    In 1992, Anderson joined the Keck School of Medicine as the Director of Gene Therapy Laboratories and also served as the professor of biochemistry and pediatrics. During this time he also founded the peer reviewed journal called “Human Gene Therapy”. However all his later attempts to form a company to make a commercial venture from gene therapy failed and his funding was cut down significantly.

    In 2006 Dr. French Anderson was accused and arrested for sexual abuse of a minor. The victim, a daughter of an employee, accused Anderson of sexual abuse which led to his conviction for 14 years and a fine of $68,000. It was a tragic career ending for a significant personality in science who was once shortlisted for the Time magazine’s Man of the Year honour.

    Suggested Reading:

    The Pros and Cons of Human Genetic Engineering

    DNA Scissors: The Future of Gene Therapy?