Meet Martine, Our Genetic Researcher

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Martine Dunnwald is a research assistant professor at the University of Iowa. She studies the causes of cleft lips and palates. She’s on the trip collecting data from patients and their families, all in an effort to understand more about clefts.

“Ultimately, we want to be able to find a cure for the defect, but also to help families, inform families of why clefts are occurring,” Martine says.

Cleft lips and palates can often be traced to genes. Often, Martine says, a person with a cleft will have a family member with one as well. Even me, a non-geneticist, quickly noticed multiple sets of siblings being brought in on Assessment Day.

This is Gerny with his sister, who will also be having surgery this week.

This is Gerny with his sister, who will also be having surgery this week.

So we know that clefts have something to do with a mutation in the genes, but why are they occurring more in lesser developed countries?

The fact is, clefts are more prevalent in Guatemala. Approximately, 1 in 1,000 babies in the U.S. are born with a cleft issue. In Guatemala, it’s 1 in 700.

To answer why, Martine says we need to look not just at genetics, but also environment – factors like smoking and malnutrition.

“A good example is a mom who has a genetic variance; her chance of giving birth to a child with a cleft is increased. But if that mother is smoking during pregnancy, her chances are again bumped up.”

And it’s not a slight increase. Martine says smoking can more than double the chances of giving birth to a child with a cleft.

While on the trip, Martine will be collecting samples – both of saliva, to get DNA, as well as tissue samples. The tissue, collected after surgery from discarded samples, will be taken to the lab to help researchers determine why patients with clefts are also more likely to have trouble healing.

Martine speaks to parents about taking part in her research.  She says about 90% says yes.

Martine speaks to parents about taking part in her research. She says about 90% say yes.

The research isn’t easy, and Martine is quick to point out that we’re far away from completely understanding the causes of clefts, let alone being able to prevent it. But what we do have, thanks to the efforts of researchers like Martine, is a database of patients, from Guatemala to the Philippines, who will help the world know a little bit more about people living with clefts.

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