4 more genes identified in Alzheimer's research

Apr 4 2011 - 9:44am

MIAMI - In the biggest such study to date, research institutions including the University of Miami have identified four genes implicated in causing Alzheimer's disease.

While only five or six of as many as 100 genes linked to Alzheimer's are now known, the development signals a "monumental breakthrough" that could lead to identification of nearly all the suspect genes in three to five years, said Dr. Margaret Pericak-Vance, who led analysis of the genes for UM's medical school.

"As we learn more, we can get a better understanding of this complicated disease," said Pericak-Vance, director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics at UM. The breakthrough could lead to better-targeted medicines and lifestyle changes to fight Alzheimer's, researchers said.

Despite the progress, Pericak-Vance said doctors can't predict when Alzheimer's will be preventable or curable. "I know we're closer today than we were," he said.

It's been slow going. Pericak-Vance was instrumental in finding the first genetic evidence for Alzheimer's in the 1990s. She discovered another gene last year and now is in on the discovery of four more.

But she says new methods of analysis and new technology -- including UM's $1-million-plus Illumina Platform, which uses computer chips to compare, contrast and analyze genetic-factor samples from thousands of test subjects -- should speed the search. In the latest study, such advances made it possible to process evidence from 11,000 people with Alzheimer's and a nearly equal number of those without it.

The new methods also are enabling an even larger gene study now starting by UM's new International Genomics of Alzheimer's Project, along with other U.S. and French researchers.

The current study results appear in this month's issue of Nature Genetics. It's a collaboration of investigators from 44 universities and research institutions led by Gerard Schellenberg at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Lindsay Farrer of the Boston University School of Medicine and Pericak-Vance.

One major value of identifying more genes implicated in Alzheimer's is that it will help pharmaceutical companies create drugs aimed specifically at the faulty genes. It also will help with earlier predictions of who is at risk, so they can make lifestyle changes to try to slow its progress, she said Pericak-Vance.

Alzheimer's today afflicts 3 to 5 million Americans and costs $24.6 billion a year for healthcare. Alzheimer's will affect 8 to 16 million people by 2050, experts say.

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.

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