Researchers believe they have found the answer to whether a handful of common inflammatory diseases that occur together and in families and individuals are due to environmental risk factors or shared genes.
In a global study led by the Queensland University of Technology and Christian-Albrechts-University, Kiel, Germany and involving 50 different research centres, the researchers say they have “conclusively demonstrated” that genetics are responsible in most cases.
The results have been published in the journal Nature Genetics, and identify hundreds of genes that cause ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, and primary sclerosing cholangitis.
Co-senior author Professor Matthew Brown, from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, said the study paved the way for new treatments for these often difficult to manage diseases and finally brought the answer to a much asked question.
“These diseases affect about three per cent of the world’s population, and commonly occur together in families and in individuals,” he said.
“The big question has been whether this is due to shared environmental risk factors, or due to shared genes and now we believe we have the answer. The research has conclusively demonstrated these conditions occur together mostly because they share similar genetic backgrounds.”
Professor Brown said the researchers had studied almost 86,000 subjects from 26 countries, and identified 244 genetic variants which control whether or not people develop these conditions, a large proportion of which were “completely new findings”.
“They found that for nearly all of these diseases the reason they frequently occur together in individuals is due to the different diseases sharing genetic risk factors, rather than one disease causing the other,” he said.
“For some diseases such as the common form of spinal arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, the study roughly trebled the number of genes known to be involved.”
Professor Brown told the limbic that the finding had huge clinical significance because understanding the genetics of the disease would mean stronger predictors for whether drugs would be an effective treatment.
He said it was likely that existing drugs could turn out to be useful for targeting diseases they might not traditionally be used to treat, although there was still much work to be done.
And does he think that identifying these genes will lead to prevention of these diseases?
“We’re thinking that they’d be used as a therapy not a prevention,” he said. “It’s really exciting.”