John D. Harkey Jr. is a true Renaissance man. Besides heading up the Dallas company called Consolidated Restaurant Operations, he’s a longtime private-equity investor and co-founder of a gene therapy company called AveXis Inc., which Goldman Sachs recently took public. He’s also a Baylor Health Care System Foundation board member and, together with Peni Barfield, the current education chair for the Dallas YPO Gold group—a group of successful CEOs who are at least age 49.
So, it made perfect sense when John went last June to Robin Robinson, president of the Baylor Foundation, and asked whether Baylor would consider hosting the YPO group for a dinner and educational session on the increasingly important field of genetics. Robin not only said yes, he said, “It’s on us.” Which led to the event for about 100 YPO Gold members and their spouses Thursday, March 2, at Baylor’s Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center.
As attendees including Craig Hall, Myrna and Bob Schlegel, Brent Christopher, Barbara and Steve Durham, Libby Allred, Barbara Crow, Camila Iribe Orive and Adolfo Orive, Caroline and Rick O’Brien, Jane Saginaw Lerer and Stephen Lerer, Ashley Arnold, Leslie and Nick Merrick, Patty and Mark Langdale, and Todd Furniss gathered to enjoy the delicious dinner, there was an extra sense of anticipation in the air. About 70 of the 100, it seems, had agreed in advance a while ago to undergo genetic testing. And tonight, the results of their collective—and anonymous—gene profiles were going to be revealed. Talk about a dessert surprise!
Before introducing several top experts in the field to the YPOers, Robin told the group that genetics is “one of the fastest-moving areas in medicine,” and that he himself had “spit in a cup” once for the company called 23andMe. The result: Robin was told that 95 percent of his ancestors were from Northwest Europe … and he had a 70 percent chance of hair loss!
The foundation president then gave way to Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. Gibbs explained that there are several good reasons for a person to pursue genetic testing, including if you have a genetic disease or if you’re considering having children.
Next on the program were Peter Dysert II, M.D., who’s chief of the pathology department at Baylor University Medical Center, and George Jackson “Jack” Snipes, M.D., Ph.D., the co-medical director, molecular pathology, at BUMC. Snipes explained some genome basics, and shared the amazing fact that humans share 99.5 percent to 99.9 percent of their DNA with each other. The more “SNPs” (or “snips”) that you share with a group—SNPs are the most common type of genetic variation among people—the more you are like that group, Jack went on.
With that, it was time to reveal the YPO Gold group’s collective genetic profile. In terms of average ethnicity, the experts explained, the bulk of the group broke down like this: 36 percent were of British/Irish ancestry; 26 percent were German/French; 14 percent were Ashkenazi Jew; and 7 percent were Scandinavian. Then the experts turned to the business of recessive genes among the group, and revealed the following: 22 of the 70 (or 31 percent) were carriers of 29 different inherited genetic disorders. Three were carriers for cystic fibrosis; three were carriers for Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome (that’s an error in cholesterol synthesis); and three were carriers for “apnea following anesthesia.”
But, that’s not all as scary as it might sound, the group was told. While everyone is very likely a carrier for something, it’s important to know, especially for your children’s sake, whether both of your parents may have carried recessive genes, the attendees learned. With that, James C. Denison, Ph.D.—he’s the resident scholar for ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health—told how his son had suffered from a very rare form of cancer caused by a genetic mutation, and how he prays every day that the mutation will be reversed.
The evening wrapped up with a presentation by a Houston company called Gene By Gene Ltd., which started off specializing in DNA-based ancestry and geneology before expanding into the medical and research fields. The company’s mission is to “unleash the power of genetic testing for everyone, giving unparalleled insight into ourselves and the future.” Filing out of the Sammons Center around 9 p.m., members of the YPO Gold group had a much better understanding of that power—thanks to Robin, John, and Peni.