When Dr. Carol Wise looks at the thousands of specimen tubes that reside in the laboratory she oversees at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, she sees not only vials filled with important DNA samples, but also the patients and families behind them. People who generously and, quite literally, gave of themselves in hopes of helping further advancements in science and medicine that may someday work to cure others. “That tube is a little tube of gold,” says Dr. Wise, 54, who is the hospital’s director of molecular genetics and basic science. “People have heard me say our freezer is Fort Knox, and every time you hold a tube, that is somebody who was kind enough to give us a sample, or somebody who might have been suffering quite a bit.”
Since starting at the hospital in 1997, Dr. Wise has led an ongoing research project that a decade ago identified the first genetic marker associated with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS), a disease that causes an abnormal curvature of the spine. According to the Scoliosis Research Society, it affects about four in every 100 children ages 10 through 18 and is the most common form of scoliosis. “It is very important to catch this early and treat them before it becomes a real medical problem,” she says. “It is a large health burden on this hospital. It is also a very large health burden on our nation.” More than a billion dollars is spent annually on surgical scoliosis cases.
In 2011, Dr. Wise and her team discovered a second genetic marker related to the disease. As part of their research, for which they have received funding from the National Institutes of Health, as well as from private sources and the hospital itself, they are studying members of some 2,500 families, screening each person for millions of genetic markers and storing their DNA for future use in research.
Over the years, she has gotten to know many of the patients and their families personally. She has attended their birthday parties and, sadly, in some cases, their funerals. “I did not know that I was going to fall in love with these people,” she shares.
Molecular genetics research is not the type of work Dr. Wise imagined herself doing when she was a child growing up in the formerly small farming community of Forney. At Forney High School, she played on the varsity basketball team and ran track. Her twin sister, Cheryl, was a UIL state essay-writing champion, and also played sports. It is also where she met her future husband, John Wise, who, in 1992, opened Wise Orthodontics, one of the first orthodontic practices in Frisco. “When I first met him, I think I was a foot taller than him,” she says. He would sit in the stands and cheer her on during basketball games and once stopped to help her collect textbooks she dropped in the school hallway. “He probably does not remember that, but I do.”
The daughter of a pair of educators — her mother, Jo Ann Cross, was head of the math department at Mesquite High School while her father, Ben Cross, helmed the biology department at North Mesquite High School — Dr. Wise figured she would pursue a career in either the math or science fields. She attended Texas A&M University and studied chemical engineering before switching to chemistry during her sophomore year. She graduated in 1985, the same year she and John wed, and went on to earn her doctorate in biochemistry at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. In 1991, the couple moved to Houston, where John was studying orthodontics and she was offered a post-doctoral fellowship in the top-ranked Baylor College of Medicine Department of Molecular and Human Genetics. There, she worked with Dr. James Lupski, who is noted for his genetic research and discoveries surrounding Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological disorder. “He is a lion in my field, so I was really lucky to be there at the time,” Dr. Wise shares.
At the same time, the Wises were also starting a family. Their son, Ben, was born in 1991, followed three years later by their daughter, Madeline. In 1992, the family relocated back to North Texas, and by the end of the decade had settled in Lucas. Prior to that, Dr. Wise continued her post-doctoral fellowship work. At UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development, she worked alongside Dr. Michael Lovett researching in the field now commonly referred to as genomics. While there, she participated in a project focused on Hereditary Multiple Exostoses, a rare inherited disease in which children develop painful boney growths. It was through that work that she became connected with Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, where many of those patients received treatment.
When it comes to molecular genetics, “There has never been a better time to do this kind of work, and I am in the best place to do this kind of work,” says Dr. Wise, who is also a professor at the Eugene McDermott Center and the departments of orthopedic surgery and pediatrics at UT Southwestern, where she participates in the Genes, Development and Disease graduate-training program. “The technologies that have developed and that are developing have completely changed what I do. Something that used to take two, three, four years can take a month or less now in terms of discovering a gene that causes disease.”
Continuing her team’s scoliosis research at Scottish Rite Hospital remains a top priority. Since beginning their work two decades ago, the group has discovered additional genetic markers for AIS and published numerous articles in medical journals about their findings. “We can start to hypothesize a mechanism, meaning how molecules in the cell do not interact properly and it immediately has us starting to think about possible drug intervention” as well as ways to predict who may develop AIS. “The idea is that we can identify children at risk and give them a prevention in those juvenile years so they never develop it.”
“Dr. Wise is an integral member of our expert staff here at the hospital,” says Dr. Daniel Sucato, chief of staff and director of Scottish Rite Hospital’s Center for Excellence in Spine. “Over the years, her groundbreaking work in genetics research has been recognized by medical professionals from around the world and has directly benefited not only our patients, but children everywhere. Her expertise and commitment to excellence make her an invaluable researcher and colleague at Scottish Rite Hospital.”
Dr. Wise is also co-director of the hospital’s Genomics of Orthopedic Disease (GOOD for Kids) project, which utilizes cutting-edge techniques and samples collected from Scottish Rite patients and their families who suffer from other rare musculoskeletal disorders to uncover genetic causes of diseases. “These days, with the technologies we have, we can identify what is causal in a way that we could not a few years ago,” she shares. “Through this program, we are doing just that.”
Dr. Wise says she could not have done this groundbreaking work on her own and credits her fellow research team members, as well as the hospital’s clinicians, for their contributions. “There are a whole lot of people behind the scenes who are responsible for the project’s success,” she says. “I am a tiny fraction of it.”