February 8, 2006

US Launches Two Studies of Genes and Disease

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Why can one person smoke with no apparent ill-effects while another gets lung cancer? Why does one identical twin get Alzheimer's when his brother does not?

Two U.S. research projects announced on Wednesday will develop new ways to analyze data try to find answers to those and other such health questions in the links among genes, environment and disease.

One program at the National Institutes of Health will examine some potential environmental causes of common ailments, with an emphasis on how environment can affect genes that make some people susceptible to disease.

A second initiative will link the NIH and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including Pfizer Inc. of New York and California's Affymetrix Inc., to look for tiny DNA code changes that underlie many diseases.

"Virtually all diseases have a hereditary component, transmitted from parent to child through the three billion DNA letters that make up the human genome," said Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH.

"Both initiatives promise to rapidly identify the myriad genes in an individual that, taken together, contribute to an increased risk of illness -- or that increase the chances of a healthy life."

The projects will sequence genes and also mine data provided by ongoing studies such as the Human Genome Project.


Researchers will work to design new tools to measure environmental factors, such as wearable sensors that could measure substances in the air or how much a person exercises.

Better devices also will be developed to measure changes in human biology, such as those seen in blood and urine.

The NIH said more than 100 diseases already have sufficient numbers of patients whose genetic makeup has been characterized to get started.

"Over many years, NIH has spent billions of dollars to collect and study patient populations with a wide range of illnesses," NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni said in a statement.

"These groups are ideally suited because DNA samples already have been collected. Now, we can apply newly available technologies, developed with NIH support, that have reduced the cost of genotyping more than 100-fold, making such a comprehensive effort affordable," Zerhouni added.

Congress still must approve funding for the project, proposed by President George W. Bush in this week's budget request.

The second project is called the Genetic Association Information Network, in which NIH labs will team with drug giant Pfizer and Affymetrix, a biotech company specializing in "gene chips" and other genetic tools.

Both projects will look for tiny, one-letter differences in the genetic code, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, which can alter a gene enough to make a person either susceptible or resistant to a disease.

"We need better tools to evaluate environmental exposures, dietary intake, and activity levels and then determine how those risk factors interact with specific genotypes to either maintain health or lead to disease," said Dr. David Schwartz, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at NIH.

"Without these more precise measures of exposure, it will be very difficult to figure out why certain people develop disease and others don't," Schwartz added.