A team of scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Harwell — a research facility in England — has successfully pinpointed animal genes closely associated with age-related conditions such as retinal degeneration, osteoarthritis and hearing loss. The insights could help in the development of screening tests to identify human patients at risk of developing such conditions.
As we age, the risk of developing a range of conditions, from diabetes to dementia, increases significantly. Each person's level of risk is influenced by the genes that they carry, but our knowledge of which genes play a part, and our understanding of the specific role that they play, is far from complete.
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The MRC study is designed to provide scientists with more information on the issue. Working with laboratory mice, the researchers introduced random gene mutations before birth, and then monitored the animals' health through the aging proces. Whenever a subject developed an late-onset condition, the team looked back at which gene had been mutated.
This methodology allowed numerous genes to be linked to age-related conditions. For example, we already knew that the gene slc4a10 is important for eye function, but the new work actually links defective versions of the gene to age-related hearing loss.
With such links now established in mice, the next step is to investigate the same genes in human subjects. If the same mutations can cause similar conditions in humans, then it might be possible to screen people for specific genetic defects, thus predicting their chances of developing a disease, and allowing for preemptive treatment.
"Our study is an important springboard for a better understanding of which genes in humans are involved in age-related conditions, and how changes in those genes influence this," said lead researcher Dr Paul Potter. "This is a first and vital step in developing new therapies."
Full details of the study are published online in the journal Nature Communications.