DNA scientists consider cloning Lincoln's tissue

February 10, 1991|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A government museum is considering an effort to clone tissue samples from Abraham Lincoln in an attempt to answer persistent questions about his health and how it might have affected his performance as president.

The work could set a precedent for examining the genetic material of other historical figures whose tissue has been preserved.

A number of museums, special libraries, hospitals and research institutions hold tissue samples from scores of historical figures, RTC including several U.S. presidents, military leaders and politicians.

Examples include locks of hair and tissues removed in surgery or autopsy.

After a symposium yesterday on Lincoln's health, the National Museum of Health and Medicine announced the appointment of an expert committee to study the technical and ethical feasibility of examining samples of hair, bone and blood from Lincoln to see if any genetic material remains 126 years after the president's assassination.

Testing would require destroying tiny amounts of the samples to recover the genetic substance DNA, which could be cloned to produce quantities sufficient for research.

There are questions about how well the samples were preserved in their early years and whether the DNA was destroyed.

The museum's collection of Lincoln's tissue, obtained at his autopsy, includes bloodstains from a doctor's shirt cuffs, two locks of hair totaling about 180 strands less than 2 inches long, and seven bone fragments weighing a total of more than 10 grams from the head wound where the president was shot.

Genetic material could disclose whether Lincoln was afflicted with the inherited disease Marfan syndrome, as some experts suspect from indirect evidence, which could have taken his life at any time even if he had not been killed April 14, 1865.

When Lincoln was killed, a few months into his second term, he was 56 years old, an age at which three-quarters of the people with Marfan syndrome would normally have been dead under 19th-century medical care, today's experts say.

People with Marfan syndrome often grow tall and gangly, with unusually long limbs and fingers.

The National Marfan Foundation estimates that 40,000 Americans are afflicted. The ailment can cause abnormalities and weakness in bones and joints, eyes, the heart and blood vessels.

Some scientists suggest that genetic evidence also might one day show whether Lincoln suffered from chronic depression, as several biographers suspect.

Dr. Victor A. McKusick, professor of medical genetics at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on Marfan syndrome who agreed to be chairman of the eight-member panel, said DNA from a dead person is potentially very revealing.

"Looking at a person's genetic setup could tell you if they were at increased risk of cancer or some other disease, even when you couldn't establish that these things actually happened to them," he said.

Dr. McKusick and others emphasized that one thing that would not result from studying Lincoln's DNA would be a science-fiction-like attempt to reproduce the man.

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