A painful and progressive spinal condition could be halted by medicine that was developed to treat a different disease.
Researchers who compared the DNA of people who suffer from a painful and progressive back condition with that of non-sufferers, identified genetic differences which could be targeted with drugs that are already at an advanced stage of development.
The breakthrough could help tens of thousands of people in Britain who suffer from the condition, ankylosing spondylitis, a form of spinal arthritis, which causes inflammation in the joints between vertebrae and can lead to bone erosion and the fusion of bones in the spine.
It affects about one in 200 men and one in 500 women, and occurs most commonly between the ages of 15 and 35. Michael Atherton, the former England cricket captain, is a sufferer.
A study has implicated the IL23R gene in the development of spinal arthritis, having already been linked to Crohn's disease.
Michael Brown, of the University of Oxford, said the identification of the gene was a big breakthrough and meant there was hope that an existing drug could be used to treat spinal arthritis. "We already know IL23R is involved in inflammation but no one had ever thought it was involved in ankylosing spondylitis ," Professor Brown said.
"A treatment for Crohn's disease that inhibits the activity of this gene is already undergoing human trials. This looks very promising as a potential treatment for ankylosing spondylitis."
A team of scientists from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford formed part of an group of scientists whose study was published yesterday in the journal, Nature Genetics.
The report's lead author, Professor Lon Cardon, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, in Seattle said the arthritis often occurs alongside Crohn's disease and the discovery of the gene may help scientists understand why.
"Clinically, these diseases occur together – people with inflammatory bowel disease tend to have a higher probability of having ankylosing spondylitis. One gene, IL23R, provides a genetic link that sheds new light on their co-occurrence."
A treatment for Crohn's disease that inhibits the activity of this gene is already in development. If it is shown to be safe and effective it is also likely to help those with ankylosing spondylitis.
Abigail Page of the charity Arthritis Care said: "Anything which allows us to identify the people who are at risk earlier has to be a good thing."
The majority of sufferers of Crohn's disease take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation and relieve pain, with many side-effects.
Meanwhile, a gene found identified in mice that regulates lifespan in mammals has been found by scientists. Manipulating the gene could one day ward off aging and its related illnesses such as Alzheimer's, cancer and heart disease.
Experiments in male mice showed that those without a gene called IRS-1 lived 20 per cent longer than those with the gene.
In addition to longer lives, the mice without IRS-1 were much healthier than normal mice as they aged – they had brighter eyes, better immune function and healthier skin and bones.
Dominic Withers of the Centre for Research on Aging at University College London, who led the study, said: "These results suggest that IRS-1it may point to methods of potentially delaying aging in humans."
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