April 11, 2003 — Genetic studies have an important part to play in the health of the
general public, according to new research from Bristol University
published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
reports of claims that a particular gene has been found for a
particular disease are often inaccurate, genetic studies can be used to
identify reliable ways of improving health through simple
interventions, such as moderate dietary change.
or example, studying the associations between genes carried by mothers
and the occurrence of spina bifida (a neural tube defect) in their
children could have shown that folate pills taken before the women get
pregnant would have prevented the disease.
authors, Professors George Davey Smith and Shah Ebrahim, call this
method ‘Mendelian randomisation’, after Gregor Mendel, the monk who
discovered the laws of genetic inheritance in the 1860s.
that produce well-defined effects in the body can be used to uncover
the effects of exposures that are difficult to study because they are
closely linked with other variables.
For example, simply
comparing folate intake in mothers with and without children suffering
from a neural tube defect is complicated because folate intake is lower
among smokers, poorer people, people who drink heavily or have other
dietary deficiencies. These links make it difficult to identify low
folate as the important factor in causing neural tube defects – such
diseases could be caused by one of these other factors.
(known as MTHFR) exists in some people in a form that makes them
resistant to dietary folate intake. Women who carry this gene are no
more likely to be smokers, heavy drinkers or poor than are woman
without this gene. However, these women do have a higher risk of having
a baby with a neural tube defect. This provides strong evidence that by
taking folate supplements, mothers would reduce the risk of neural tube
defects in their children.
Professor Ebrahim said: "The report
shows the important role genetic research could play in informing
public health policies. Investment in the human genome project may
contribute to understanding and preventing the adverse effects on human
health of modifiable exposures such as diet, alcohol consumption and
smoking – and not just explain our individual susceptibility to
Source : University of
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