ELLSWORTH, Maine — A staff doctor at a local hospital is being recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics for his support of a local organization that promotes clinical genetics research.
Robert A. Beekman, a pediatrician at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital, also has been a staff member at Bar Harbor-based Center for Human Genetics since 1976. He said Tuesday the center was founded with the support of The Jackson Laboratory in the 1960s with the idea of promoting clinical genetics research.
Beekman said Tuesday that researchers at the lab felt strongly that genetics was highly relevant to clinical medicine and approached some local physicians about forming the center. The lab would help promote the study of how genetics affects medical conditions, he said, and the physicians then would use their diagnostic skills to translate that knowledge into a clinical setting.
Beekman stressed that he is a pediatrician, not a genetics researcher. He said he feels honored to get the AAP’s Special Achievement Award, a national honor, but finds it “a little embarrassing” at the same time. He said he’s happy, however, that the award is drawing attention to the Center for Human Genetics.
“Our goal has been to provide top-notch genetic education in Maine,” Beekman said.
Marlene Hubbard, a genetics researcher who is director of the center, said Tuesday that she cannot think of anyone more deserving for the award.
One of the services the center offers is free counseling clinics to families a couple of Saturdays each month in Ellsworth — something Beekman does for free.
“He’s giving up his Saturday mornings every time we have a clinic,” Hubbard said. “We couldn’t possibly function without him.”
According to Beekman, the creation of the center in 1969 was ahead of its time because genetics did not become a recognized specialty discipline in clinical medicine until the early 1990s. He said he became interested in genetics while studying medicine at Tufts in the early 1970s, but at the time the field was pretty much limited to the study of birth defects.
“Genetics has become so much more than birth defects now,” Beekman said.
Genetics figures heavily into chronic medical conditions and diseases, including some forms of cancer, he said. Areas that the center has delved into over the years include mental conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; the high occurrence of glaucoma in the African country of Ghana; and hemachromatosis, a condition that results in iron buildup in the body and which can cause fatigue, joint pain and organ failure, according to Beekman.
The pediatrician said there currently are only three practicing geneticist physicians in Maine, but that demand for the specialty is high and expected to increase. He predicted that expertise in genetics will be in such high demand that it will be difficult to be a general practitioner in the field. Instead, physicians interested in genetics will have to pursue sub-specialties in how it affects cancer, mental conditions or other medical phenomena, he said.
“It’s gotten to be too big,” he said. “There’s just a huge demand.”
Now, there are several similarly named genetics research centers in the country, according to Beekman. What sets the Bar Harbor center apart is a two-week advanced mammalian genetics course that it holds at Jackson Lab each summer, he said.
The course draws genetics experts from around the world and is required training for many genetics programs for both research scientists and physicians, according to center officials. On one day during the two-week event invited families with genetic disorders get to meet with relevant experts attending the course.
The event is free to participating patient families, some of whom travel to Bar Harbor from outside of Maine, and can be invaluable to patients who otherwise might have difficulty arranging such a consultation, center officials said.
Hubbard, the center’s director, said Beekman’s role in helping to bring patients and researchers together, and the time he has donated in helping families find explanations for their shared medical histories, is extraordinary.
“Dr. Beekman is passionate about genetics. He has encyclopedic knowledge and he does this as a sideline,” she said. “I’m just glad someone has realized the unusual contribution [to the discipline] that he has been making for a long time.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story requires correction. Thomas Roderick, a retired Jackson Laboratory scientist, is not retiring from his volunteer staff position at the center.