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Poland says no to DNA testing of Chopins heart
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    WARSAW, Poland — Like a religious relic, the heart of composer Frederic Chopin rests in a Warsaw church, untouched since it was preserved in alcohol after his death in 1849 at age 39.
    And that’s how the Polish government wants to keep it.
    Scientists want to remove the heart for DNA tests to see if Chopin actually died from cystic fibrosis and not tuberculosis as his death certificate stated. But the government says that’s not a good reason to disturb the remains of a revered native son.
    The heart lies in a jar sealed inside a pillar at Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church — and the only time it has been removed was for safekeeping during World War II.
    Before it was returned in 1951, a doctor examined the heart and found it perfectly preserved in an alcohol that many think is cognac. Chopin died in France, where his body is buried, but he asked that his heart be sent to his homeland.
    Cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease, was not discovered until many decades after Chopin’s death, and the scientists who want to examine the heart say many of his symptoms match that illness, including respiratory infections, recurrent fevers, delayed puberty and infertility.
    A spokeswoman for the Culture Ministry, Iwona Radziszewska, told The Associated Press on Thursday that ministry officials consulted experts and decided that ‘‘this was neither the time to give approval, nor was it justified by the potential knowledge to be gained.’’
    One of the experts consulted, the head of the National Frederic Chopin Institute in Warsaw, Grzegorz Michalski, argued the scientists failed to demonstrate that they had sufficient expertise carrying out such DNA tests or that the chances of success were high.
    He said the ‘‘dominant view’’ of Chopin experts ‘‘is that the proposed research is going to serve first and foremost to satisfy the curiosity of the project’s authors,’’ while offering no ‘‘new knowledge that would have a meaningful impact on the assessment of the figure and work of Chopin.’’
    One of the scientists seeking to do the tests, geneticist Michal Witt, acknowledged that DNA testing might not prove whether Chopin was afflicted with cystic fibrosis or not.
    Part of the uncertainty, he said, comes from not knowing what condition the heart is in after so many years in alcohol. But he said his team was made up of experts, including forensic molecular biologist Tadeusz Dobosz, fully capable of carrying out the study.
    Witt believes authorities rejected the testing because of the relic-like status of the heart of Chopin, the musical genius claimed as one of Poland’s greatest treasures.
    ‘‘I’m sure that played a major role, and it’s understandable,’’ Witt said.
    Chopin was born in 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, a village near Warsaw, to a Polish mother and French father. From an early age, he suffered frail health and nasal and lung infections typical of cystic fibrosis. He was so weak at times that he had to be carried off stage after concerts, and in his later years he taught piano while lying down.
    Witt co-authored a paper in the Journal of Applied Genetics citing other symptoms indicating the possibility of cystic fibrosis. At age 22, Chopin complained facial hair wouldn’t grow on one side of his face, a sign of delayed puberty. He also never fathered any children despite sexual relations with several women, including a famous relationship with the French writer George Sand, a mother of two children by her husband.
    Though Chopin’s death certificate says he died of ‘‘tuberculosis of the lungs and the larynx,’’ the doctor who treated him, Jean Cruveilhier, said the death was caused ‘‘by a disease not previously encountered,’’ according to historical documents cited by Witt in his paper.
    Witt believes it is of more than just academic interest to investigate whether Chopin died of cystic fibrosis.
    ‘‘It matters for those who are affected with cystic fibrosis, and with any other debilitating chronic disorder,’’ he said. ‘‘Can you believe what message you send saying that you might become a genius even if you have a disorder like that? And it is a question worth answering if possible.’’
    Associated Press writer Zuzia Danielski contributed to this report.

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