Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dem old bones

Shortness is related to arthritis, the latest news tells us. Too tall, or too short, it seems we are at risk of osteoarthritis if we are anything other than average when it comes to height. The reasons are not clear but this news is quite exciting to researchers as there are so few genes for osteoarthritis, whereas there are a great many for height. Careful digging into the genetic and environmental causes of both may shed light on the increased risk. If short people get arthritis, what does this mean from an evolutionary perspective? Often, a genetic disadvantage in this day and age, may have been a significant advantage in years gone by.
I'm short, so I should perhaps be concerned. Or maybe not. I could have a gene test; a gene for Growth Differentiation Factor 5, or GDF5, has been associated with the development of cartilage, and also with arthritis susceptibility in Europeans and Asians. If I have the risk variant, what would I do about it? Nothing, because there is really nothing that can be done. I have no family history, although my son does appear to have somewhat mobile joints. Perhaps I passed a dicky gene on? To understand my genetic risk is becoming easier for bones and lots of other pending problems. Gene testing is relatively cheap and beginning to offer significant information, albeit un-validated for the most part. The HapMap, a complete map of human genetic variation, is about to be released in the journal Nature Genetics (online, Jan 13th 08). For sure, as these types of sweeping tests become more popular, doctors, diagnostics companies and drug companies will have to start coming up with ethical responses to the questions that will arise when folks begin to see they have genes rendering them susceptible to dementia, cancer and the like. How will we deal with the knowledge of the risk, with no preventatives to soothe us while we wait for the inevitable? Dangerous and heady times are ahead. But what an amazing time to be alive, and what a great opportunity for those of a business mind-set.
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