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Case Study: Dr. Colleen A. Morris, pediatric clinical geneticist

The code-breaker

Colleen Morris hopes to improve the lives of children by studying their genes

It’s obvious that Dr. Colleen Morris is Nevada’s first and only pediatric geneticist: The mountains of files that line her offices attest to the amount of information she and her team must sift through in her quest to identify and treat children with genetic disorders.

“Ideally, there would be at least three more of me working in a population the size of Nevada’s,” she says. “But my team and I do our best to keep up.”

Keeping up means conducting genetics clinics throughout the state in order to find kids whose learning difficulties or behavioral problems have a genetic basis. At these clinics, Morris and her team review medical and family histories, perform physical examinations and order genetic screenings if needed. Her team includes researchers and genetics counselors across the state, as well as nurses in the Clark County School District, where Dr. Morris helps conduct 10 genetics clinics per academic year.

“School nurses refer children to these clinics, with the question being, ‘Do these kids have a genetic condition or syndrome that is impacting their ability to learn?’” Morris says. “And with many genetic conditions, once you identify them, you can tailor a successful long-term curriculum for a particular child.”

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In her decades as Nevada’s only clinical pediatric geneticist, Dr. Morris has identified and treated a wide variety of genetic disorders, ranging from mental retardation to growth deficiencies to physical deformities. Since these kids have problems that affect their education and development, an early diagnosis from Dr. Morris, coupled with a focused treatment regimen, can pay huge dividends in terms of a child’s future.

“I really love those clinics,” she adds. “And, to our knowledge, the Clark County School District is probably the only school district in the nation conducting them.”

Morris also loves research, and her signature achievement to date involves being part of the team that helped identify the genetic components of Williams Syndrome, a disorder that causes a variety of abnormalities including both behavioral problems and physical deformities. The syndrome affects about one in 8,000 births, and the severity of symptoms can vary widely with each patient, which makes treating the syndrome very difficult.

“Unfortunately, as with a lot of syndromes, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment that works for every patient,” Morris says. “But developments in the field are coming fast, so I’m hopeful that treatments will become both more effective and more accessible soon.”

As a Professor in the University of Nevada School of Medicine, Dr. Morris also runs a genetics laboratory where she educates students from a variety of institutions, including the College of Southern Nevada. Another focus of her research is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which Dr. Morris contends is far more prevalent than many people realize.

“My unscientific guess is that 1 percent of children born in Nevada suffer from some degree of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,” she says. “It’s a huge problem that we’re only beginning to get a handle on.” That’s why Morris established a fund at the University of Nevada, Reno, designed to help research and treat Fetal Alcohol Syndrome throughout the Silver State.

“What we really need in this city is a free-standing children’s hospital with an associated clinical research center,” she says. She’s convinced that such a hospital would attract research and cutting-edge treatments to Las Vegas.

“It might even get another pediatric geneticist to move here,” she notes with a smile.

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