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Researchers Identify Multiple Common Disease Genes


British researchers have identified multiple genes that are involved in common diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. The investigators say the work holds promise for developing treatments and cures for those at highest risk of common ailments. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

The $18 million study by British researchers pinpoints the locations of genetic defects of seven common diseases, including type one and two diabetes, Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, bipolar disorder and high blood pressure.

The study involved comparing the DNA of more than 2,000 people with these disorders against healthy individuals.

Peter Donnelly of the University of Oxford led the study for the Wellcome Trust Case Consortium.

Using modern research methods, Donnelly says investigators were able to look for hundreds of thousands of genetic variants that predispose people to common diseases; something he says was unthinkable when the human genome was first sequenced six years ago.

"What's new technologically in the last year or two is the ability to measure very large numbers of places in the human genome," he noted. "And in our study we measured a half-million in people involved in the study."

In papers published this week in Nature and Nature Genetics, researchers announced the discovery of four chromosome regions implicated in the development of type one diabetes and three new genes in the development of the inflammatory bowel condition known as Crohn's disease.

Investigators found many genes that influence a person's susceptibility to bipolar disorder. Researchers also pinpointed a genetic region that increased a person's risk of coronary artery disease by almost 50 percent.

And they found one crossover gene that seems to regulate both Crohn's disease and type one diabetes, opening the possibility that a treatment for one disease might be effective for the other.

Interestingly, researchers found that many people have genetic variants that predispose them to diseases most would not suspect they were prone to, such as type one diabetes. John Todd, a researcher with the University of Cambridge, is also involved in the study.

"All of you have these characteristics regulated by these genes to some degree. And that means that we can study healthy people who haven't developed diabetes yet, pinpoint these common characteristics that are controlled by these new genes and then study what environmental factors alter those characteristics," said Mr. Todd.

The researchers say their next step will be clinical trials to determine which environmental triggers lead to disease, a process that Todd expects could take at least 15 years.

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