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GeneAlert ... from UPI

By PEGGY PECK, United Press International

CONFIDENTIALITY QUESTIONABLE IN DNA DATABASES

Maintaining patient privacy may be difficult in this age of genetic research. Stanford University researchers explored whether individual patients and research subjects could be identified from information shared in online databases. "Traditionally people believe that if there is no identifier (names, addresses, etc.) attached, then the sample is anonymous. We found that's not really true because the DNA code itself is an identifier," a researcher wrote. The team looked at specific sites in DNA that typically vary from person to person and, using a statistical model, found that matching 100 of these sites could identify an individual with a high degree of certainty. The researchers worry insurance companies and employers might try to screen individuals based on the genetic information they may find in these research databases. The best solution at this time is to protect the data behind firewalls, and only grant access to those who can prove they are researchers and who pledge to protect confidentiality. The paper appears in the July 9 issue of Science.

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GENE THERAPY MAY REPLACE HEART RHYTHM DRUGS

Scientists have developed a gene therapy that successfully mimics the action of calcium channel blockers on the heart. Johns Hopkins researchers injected the heart muscles of guinea pigs with a virus carrying a gene that increased the production of a key protein involved in heart conductivity. Increasing levels of the protein, called G-protein Gem, decreased calcium densities by 30 percent to 90 percent. When the heart muscle was electrically stimulated to reproduce the effects of an irregular heart beat, Gem infusion helped steady the beat, just as calcium channel blockers do. "Calcium channel blockers are a valuable tool in combating arrhythmias and other forms of heart disease, but they can cause low blood pressure, heart block and constipation. Our basic research is trying to find new ways of harnessing the benefits of calcium channel blockers, while avoiding the negative side effects of existing pill therapies, especially on other organs of the body," the researchers wrote. The results of the study were published July 8 in the online edition of Circulation Research.


NEXT-GENERATION SUNSCREENS WILL OFFER CELLULAR PROTECTION

The next sunscreens to hit the market will be specifically developed to protect the skin's DNA from sun damage. A new company, DNAcare Systems, hopes to design sunscreens using research from scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in Great Britain. Accumulation of sun-induced DNA damage in the skin is the major cause of skin cancer. Currently, sunscreens are rated for their ability to prevent sunburn, but not for their ability to prevent DNA damage. Research has shown, however, levels of sunlight that are insufficient to cause sunburn still cause DNA damage to the skin. The announcement was made on July 7.

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BREAKTHROUGH HELPS DETERMINE GENE FUNCTIONS

Scientists now have a quicker way to determine what a particular gene does in an organism. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have developed a "high throughput" technique that can be used in both cell cultures and animal models to screen genes for a particular biological function. This method will allow for the rapid development of a cDNA library, which would contain the protein-encoding sequences of DNA. Researchers could use this library to analyze specific gene functions. The Chapel Hill report said: "It offers a quick and efficient way to transfer cDNA into a viral vector library, and it also helps isolate altered cells, ensuring that the changes in them are due to the introduced gene. The closed system we have developed allows us to take candidate genes from virus to bacteria to cell to animal, quickly and efficiently." The new technique also could have clinical applications, including drug design. The technique is described in the July issue of Molecular Therapy.


GENE THERAPY, GENE SILENCING COMBINE TO PREVENT NEURODEGENERATIVE DISEASE

Researchers prevented an inherited neurodegenerative disease using gene therapy delivered to the brains of living mice. University of Iowa researchers used a viral vector to deliver RNA to critical brain cells of mice with a disorder that mimics the human neurodegenerative disease spinocerebellar ataxia 1. The gene therapy suppresses the SCA1 gene through a process called RNA interference. Mice with the SCA1 gene that were treated with the gene therapy had normal movement and coordination, while untreated mice developed movement problems and lost brain cells in a manner similar to humans with this condition. "This is the first example of targeted gene silencing of a disease gene in the brains of live animals and it suggests that this approach may eventually be useful for human therapies," the researchers wrote. The results of this research appeared in the advance online edition of Nature Medicine on July 4 and will appear in the August issue of the same publication.

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(EDITORS: For CONFIDENTIALITY, contact Shawna Williams at (650) 724-5372 or [email protected]. For CALCIUM CHANNEL, contact David March at (410) 955-1534 or [email protected]. For NEXT, contact Dr. Mark Birch-Machin at 44-191-222-5841 or [email protected]. For BREAKTHROUGH, contact Les Lang at (919) 843-9687 or [email protected]. For NEURODEGENERATIVE, contact Jennifer Brown at (319) 335-9917 or [email protected])

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