Exploring frontiers of science

Soldotna woman leaving mark on genetic research

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

A little monkey was born in October in Oregon. Conceived in a Petri dish, brought to term in a surrogate mother, delivered by Caesarean section and housed in an antiseptic laboratory nursery, ANDi is anything but ordinary.

What sets him apart is invisible to the casual observer -- so far.

Hidden inside every cell of his body is a fragment of genetic code that no rhesus monkey has ever carried before, a bit of biological programming borrowed from a jellyfish. ANDi, whose name is an acronym for "inserted DNA" spelled backward, is the first living primate to carry genes from another species.

The scientist who guided his conception and birth and now tends to his infant needs is Crista Martinovich, 28, who grew up in Sterling, graduated from Kenai Peninsula College and got her biology degree from the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

Last week, she spoke to the Peninsula Clarion about her unusual job on the cutting edge of the genetic engineering revolution.

"I guess I have a unique opportunity," she said.

Her involvement in the groundbreaking study landed her picture in the Jan. 22 issue of Time magazine.

She also is listed as a co-author of several published scientific studies with her colleagues at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Martinovich moved to Sterling in 1983 at the beginning of her fifth-grade year. Her mother, Sherry, and brother, Eric, still live in the central peninsula.

She recalled being the little girl who always wanted to investigate the guts whenever her dad cleaned a fish.

"I've always been interested in biology," she said. "I was always a dissecting person."

Her first formal biology was as a student at Soldotna High School.

Her former teacher, Pat Nolden, still teaches science there.

"I do remember Crista," he said. "I know she received an excellent grade."

Nolden remembered her as a happy person, involved student and interested learner.

Her senior year, Martinovich was transferred to the brand new Skyview High School, where she graduated in 1991.

Not sure what she wanted to do next, she enrolled at KPC and earned a general associate's degree.

She credited her biology teacher there, Dwight Wood, with inspiring her fascination with things under the microscope. Wood is now retired and lives in Nikiski.

After graduating from the Soldotna campus, she went to UAA, where she settled on a biology major.

"My main motivation to get into the biology-clinical field was my father, who had lymphoma (it is in remission now). But I've always wanted to be apart of something that could contribute to that in some way," she said.

In 1997 she graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biology and headed to Oregon to look for a job.

"There are more jobs for biologists down here," she explained.

Now she visits the Kenai Peninsula for holidays and special events, such as her upcoming 10th high school reunion.

"I do miss the snow," she said. "It just rains here."

Martinovich considers herself fortunate to have landed the job with the primate lab. The facility took the rare step of advertising a job in the newspaper, where she happened to see it.

Now a senior research assistant, she has been on the staff for four years.

The laboratory, near Portland, is part of the larger primate center, which has about 2,500 animals of five species: three types of macaques (which include the rhesus monkeys), squirrel monkeys and capuchins.

She works exclusively with the rhesus monkeys. Native to India, they are popular with medical researchers because they are similar to humans biologically, but small (weighing between 10 and 25 pounds at maturity).

Her work initially dealt with studies related to solving human infertility problems. This included things like handling sperm and eggs, in vitro fertilization and implanting embryos into surrogate mothers.

"The genetics stuff kind of came into our lives more recently," she said.

Martinovich and her colleagues are sensitive to the ethical questions spawned by breakthroughs in genetic engineering. They share a feeling of working on the frontier of knowledge and frequently discuss the implications of what lies ahead.

"A lot of people are very hesitant," she said, speaking of the field in general.

Although she said the lab's future plans are unknown at this point, one thing is certain, she emphasized.

"We don't have anything to do with the human thing. We want to stay on the animal side."

One year before announcing ANDi's success, the lab made headlines with its first successful foray into genetic manipulation.

It became the first place to clone primates. Done by splitting up embryos, the procedure is essentially a manmade version of nature's creation of identical twins. Scientists are eager to clone laboratory animals. Studying clones would improve the accuracy of experiments by removing the complications of genetic variability, she said.

After that success, her team launched into the project that begat ANDi.

Her colleagues extracted a marker gene, which causes phosphorescence in one type of jellyfish, and inserted copies of it into modified viruses. The viruses act as vessels to move DNA among different cells. The geneticists then infected monkey eggs with the virus, hoping some would "catch" the jellyfish gene.

Martinovich helped fertilize the doctored eggs and surgically insert them into surrogate mother monkeys.

The process resulted in five pregnant monkeys, three of whom delivered babies. Of the three, only ANDi tested positive for the transferred gene.

Now that the scientists have successfully moved a particular gene into monkey DNA, the next step will be to move a particular gene to a specific spot on the monkey DNA, she explained.

The technique may be used to decipher how the body uses genetic instructions to create health or illness.

Ultimately, biomedical re-searchers hope to use future versions of the technique to "fix" defective human genes and cure diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's, she said.

One minor disappointment of the experiment is that ANDi is not expressing the gene's effects, despite carrying it. Other lab animals that have had the gene successfully implanted do, indeed, glow faintly green. But he does not.

Martinovich and others are monitoring ANDi's physical and behavioral development, as she romps with him and the two other 3-month-old monkeys in their nursery.

"We are just going to kind of see what happens with him."

She noted that some animals have only manifested the glowing gene as they matured, so she still has a chance to end up with a glowing, green monkey.

"We are waiting," she said. "It could express at any time."

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