DNA of Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza to Be Studied by Geneticists

Study of Adam Lanza's DNA may be the first of its kind.

December 26, 2012, 4:49 PM

Dece. 27, 2012— -- Geneticists have been asked to study the DNA of Adam Lanza, the Connecticut man whose shooting rampage killed 27 people, including an entire first grade class.

The study, which experts believe may be the first of its kind, is expected to be looking for abnormalities or mutations in Lanza's DNA.

Connecticut Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver has reached out to University of Connecticut's geneticists to conduct the study.

University of Connecticut spokesperson Tom Green says Carver "has asked for help from our department of genetics" and they are "willing to give any assistance they can."

Green said he could not provide details on the project, but said it has not begun and they are "standing by waiting to assist in any way we can."

Lanza, 20, carried out the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., just days before Christmas. His motives for the slaughter remain a mystery.

Geneticists not directly involved in the study said they are likely looking at Lanza's DNA to detect a mutation or abnormality that could increase the risk of aggressive or violent behavior. They could analyze Lanza's entire genome in great detail and try to find unexpected mutations.

This seems to be the first time a study of this nature has been conducted, but it raises concerns in some geneticists and others in the field that there could be a stigma attached to people with these genetic characteristics if they are able to be narrowed down.

Arthur Beaudet, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, said the University of Connecticut geneticists are most likely trying to "detect clear abnormalities of what we would call a mutation in a gene…or gene abnormalities and there are some abnormalities that are related to aggressive behavior."

"They might look for mutations that might be associated with mental illnesses and ones that might also increase the risk for violence," said Beaudet, who is also the chairman of Baylor College of Medicine's department of molecular and human genetics.

Beaudet believes geneticists should be doing this type of research because there are "some mutations that are known to be associated with at least aggressive behavior if not violent behavior."

"I don't think any one of these mutations would explain all of (the mass shooters), but some of them would have mutations that might be causing both schizophrenia and related schizophrenia violent behavior," Beaudet said. "I think we could learn more about it and we should learn more about it."

Beaudet noted that studying the genes of murderers is controversial because there is a risk that those with similar genetic characteristics could possibly be discriminated against or stigmatized, but he still thinks the research would be helpful even if only a "fraction" may have the abnormality or mutation.

"Not all of these people will have identifiable genetic abnormalities," Beaudet said, adding that even if a genetic abnormality is found it may not be related to a "specific risk."

"By studying genetic abnormalities we can learn more about conditions better and who is at risk and what might be dramatic treatments," Beaudet said, adding if the gene abnormality is defined the "treatment to stop" other mass shootings or "decrease the risk is much approved."

Others in the field aren't so sure.

Dr. Harold Bursztajn, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is a leader in his field on this issue writing extensively on genetic discrimination. He questions what the University of Connecticut researchers could "even be looking for at this point."

"Given how wide the net would have to be cast and given the problem of false positives in testing it is much more likely we would go ahead and find some misleading genetic markers, which would later be proven false while unnecessarily stigmatizing a very large group of people," Bursztajn said.

Bursztajn also cautions there are other risks to this kind of study: that other warning signs could be ignored.

"It's too risky from the stand point of unduly stigmatizing people, but also from distracting us from real red flags to prevent violence from occurring," Bursztajn said. "The last thing we need when people are in the midst of grief is offering people quick fixes which may help our anxiety, but can be counterproductive to our long term safety and ethics."

Bursztajn is also the president of the American Unit of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Bioethics Chair and in that role he teaches health care professionals about responsible genetic education including the history of eugenics in this country in the 1920s and Nazi Germany. He cautions against the slippery slope that the kind of research that could be involved in the University of Connecticut's study could lead to.

Dr. Heidi Tissenbaum, a geneticist at the University of Massachusetts medical school, agrees the research is risky saying an accurate study just cannot be completed on one person.

"The problem is there might be a genetic component, but we don't have enough of a sample size," Tissenbaum said. "I think it's much more than a simple genetic answer, but an interplay between genetics and environment."

"One sample, what's that going to tell you," Tissenbaum said, referring to Lanza's DNA. "You never do an experiment with one, you can't conclude anything… The question is what are they comparing his DNA against? Are they going to control to random people? Matching for age or society? We just don't have enough (of a sample)."

Tissenbaum says the rush to study his DNA may simply be because "people are hurting so much they would like to find a quick answer."

"Even identical twins are different and they have identical DNA," Tissenbaum noted.

ABC News' Dr. Amish Patel contributed to this story.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events