Folbigg’s life and genetic research advances

New South Wales will conduct a second inquiry into the convictions of Kathleen Folbigg. At the center of this new inquiry is new data into the protein calmodulin – specifically one of its coding genes, CALM2 – and a mutated form of the gene known as G114R, which can cause heart arrhythmias in young children.

In this timeline, Cosmos compares the history of the Folbigg case against advances in scientific understanding of the human genome; how genes code for functional proteins; and the research into CALM2which will be presented to the inquiry.

1952

GENETIC INFORMATION

Alfred Hershey and Martha chase demonstrate DNA carries genetic information, not proteins.

1957

RECEPTOR CELLS

Hodgkin and Keynes suggest there may be receptors in cells that move calcium, based on a previous experiment – in hindsight, this role can now be attributed to the protein calmodulin.

14 June 1967

KATHLEEN BORN

Kathleen Megan Donovan – later Folbigg – is born in Sydney.

1968

NOBEL PRIZE

Marshall W. Nirenberg, Har Gobind Khorana, and Robert W. Holley win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.

8 January 1969

MOTHER MURDERED

Folbig’s mother murdered by her father.

1970

CALMODULIN PROTEIN HYPOTHESIS

Hodgkin’s and Keynes’ hypothesised receptor is attributed to the calmodulin protein. At this point, genetic sequencing did not exist, and so protein analysis did not shed light on genomics.

1977

SEQUENCING DNA

Frederick Danger develops a technique to sequence DNA – this is later used to sequence the first human genome.

1983

LOCATING GENES

James Gisella and team find the location of a gene responsible for Huntington’s disease.

1987

MARRIAGE

Kathleen marries Craig Folbigg.

20 February 1989

FIRST CHILD DIES

Caleb Volbigg dies aged 19 days.

1990

HUMAN GENOME PROJECT LAUNCHES

It aims to entirely sequence the first human genome with a timeline of 15 years.

13 February 1991

SECOND CHILD DIES

Patrick Folbigg dies aged 8 months.

1992

GENETIC TESTING

A technique is developed to genetically test embryos for diseases such as haemophilia while still in the womb.

30 August 1993

THIRD CHILD DIES

Sarah Folbigg dies aged 10 months.

1997

STUDY OF CALMODULIN

Multiple studies refine the molecular function of the calmodulin protein gene family. Calmodulin is found to be a multifunctional protein that binds calcium to help regulate, among other things, the cell cycle and cell division. Like gene characterisation, the function of a gene within the body does not illuminate the clinical relevance of the gene and protein.

1998

CALM2

The CALM2 gene is characterised – that is, the gene was compared to others in its family to estimate small, nucleotide differences. Gene characterisation only infers related genes and doesn’t show the function of the gene, or the clinical consequences of mutations in it.

1999

SEQUENCING DNA

The first fully sequenced human chromosome is released by the Human Genome Project.

1 March 1999

FOURTH CHILD DIES

Laura Folbigg dies aged 18 months.

2001

FIRST DRAFT

First draft of the human genome is released by the Human Genome Project, at a cost of US$300 million.

2003

99.9% ACCURACY

Human Genome Project completed with 99.99% accuracy. It reports around 20,000-25,000 human protein-coding genes.

24 October 2003

CONVICTION

Folbigg murder to 40 years in prison for; non-parole period is 30 years, later reduced on appeal to 25 years.

2007

TECHNOLOGY IMPROVES

Improvements in sequencing technology increase genome sequencing time 70-fold.

2008

1000 GENOMES

1000 Genomes Project launches, with aim to sequence a large cohort of genomes. Next-generation sequencing lowers the cost of genome sequencing to US$16 million.

2012

CALM1 STUDIES

Study shoes that mutations in CALM1, a close relative gene of CALM2, can lead to sudden cardiac arrest. The subject of this study was a 23-year-old female who had experienced a sudden cardiac arrest at age four, but had been resuscitated. From this point, many studies find correlations between CALM genes mutations and cardiac arrest.

2013

CALMODULIN MUTATIONS

Another study shows calmodulin mutations are associated with multiple cardiac arrests in infants.

2014

NEW MUTATIONS

Newly identified mutations in CALM2 are linked to susceptibility to congenital arrhythmia – a genetically inherited irregular heartbeat or heart rhythm.

2015

COST & EFFICIENCY

The cost of sequencing an entire draft human genome drops to under US$1500 and takes 4 to 12 weeks.

10 June 2015

FIRST PETITION

NSW Governor David Hurley receives a petition for review of Volbigg’s convictions. Petition raises a reasonable possibility of her innocence based on forensic pathology findings.

2018

100K GENOMES

The 100K Genomes Project completes sequencing 100,000 genomes for patients affect by rare diseases or cancer.

20 October 2018

INQUIRY

NSW Inquiry into the convictions opens.

March 2019

SUBSTANTIVE HEARINGS

Substantive hearings of the inquiry take place and Folbig’s children’s genomes sequenced.

May 2019

CAMODULIN REGISTRY

Calmodulin reports that two US children died of the mutation present in the Folbigg girls, Sarah registry and Laura.

July 2019

NO REASONABLE DOUBT

Commissioner of Inquiry finds no reasonable doubt to Folbigg’s convictions. Functional validation of the Folbigg mutation could not be completed before the end of the inquiry.

November 2020

INFANT MORTALITY STUDY

A research team led by Stephen Kingsmore from the Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine in San Diego (US) estimate infant mortality due to genetic disease is between 10 and 21 percent, but treatment guidelines only cover 70% of the diseases. They suggest that genomic sequencing of infants may help lower mortality.

CALM2 CONFIRMED

A paper, “Infanticide vs. inherited cardiac arrhythmias”, is released, showing the mutant variant of CALM2, G114R was present in the two female Folbig children. The authors also report the two male children had mutations in the gene BSN, associated with severe epilepsy in young mice and neurodegenerative disease during adulthood.

3 March 2021

SECOND PETITION

Petition for the Pardon of Kathleen Folbigg presented to NSW Governor Margaret Beazley.

18 May 2022

SECOND INQUIRY CALLED

Beazley directs that an inquiry was conducted into Folbig’s convictions.



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