Jocelyn Kaiser on “Gene Therapy in a New Light”

Author of Gene Therapy in a New Light Jocelyn Kaiser
Jocelyn Kaiser graduated from Princeton University with a degree in chemical engineering. She now writes for Science magazine and is the author of Gene Therapy in a New Light, which appears in Smithsonian's January 2009 issue. Jocelyn Kaiser

After graduating from Princeton University in 1988 with a degree in chemical engineering, Jocelyn Kaiser worked for General Electric. But she soon found that she enjoyed writing and traveling over chemical engineering and enrolled in a journalism masters program at Indiana University. At first, she planned on being a foreign correspondent in South America, but she says, "In the end science writing turned out to be a comfortable fit." Kaiser joined Science as an intern in 1994 and now covers biomedical research and policy for the magazine. I recently caught up with her to talk about her experience reporting "Gene Therapy in a New Light," her feature story in Smithsonian's January issue.

What drew you to this story about gene therapy? Can you describe its genesis a bit?
I've been following gene therapy for Science for the past few years. During that time there have been very few clinical successes—that is, until now almost nobody has shown that gene therapy works in people. So I've been watching for clinical studies that worked. I spotted Jean Bennett and Al Maguire's blindness study in the spring when I was scanning the program for an upcoming gene therapy meeting. It turned out that they and a British group were about to publish studies in a major medical journal showing that gene therapy improved the vision of several young adults born with a rare blindness disorder. In the course of interviewing Bennett and Maguire about their paper, I learned a bit about how long and hard they had been working towards this goal. I realized they would make a good profile.

What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
I'm not sure a particular moment stands out. But one thing I enjoyed was meeting Alisha Bacoccini, one of the volunteers in this study. I don't think I've ever interviewed a patient for a story in Science. Seeing how difficult it is for Alisha to walk down a hallway and hearing about her life as a nearly blind person made the research so much more real and compelling.

What surprised you or what did you find interesting about gene therapy that you didn't know going into this assignment?
I don't think I fully appreciated the simplicity of gene therapy until I reported this story. It was pretty amazing to see a very normal-looking dog bounding down the sidewalk that was nearly blind a year ago, and can now see thanks to a single injection in each eye. Part of the appeal of gene therapy is that it is potentially a permanent cure. Again, seeing the results instead of just reading a paper about them made that promise so much more real.

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