Scientists identify genetic cause for Parkinson's disease
'Most important advance ... this century'
November 14, 1996
Web posted at:10:30 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Jeff Levine
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- For the first time, scientists say they have found the location of a gene for Parkinson's disease, a discovery that's being heralded as a breakthrough.
By using high-tech genetic tools, it appears scientists have cracked the mystery of Parkinson's disease.
"Today we report that in a single large family of Italian descent, Parkinson's disease is caused by a gene on the long arm of chromosome four," said Zach Hall of the National Institutes of Health.
The next step is finding the right location, but researchers are closing in fast.
"While the precise gene has not yet been identified, the number of candidates has been reduced to less than one hundred," said Jeffrey Trent of the National Institutes of Health.
The task was likened in complexity to finding a burned out light bulb in a basement somewhere in the U.S. Now the search has been narrowed to an areas the size of Washington D.C.
The key was when researchers found a large family that included a number of Parkinson's patients. Scientists traced the family's heritage back to a small Italian village.
The painstaking task of locating the relatives took years. But by using new gene mapping technology, their blood samples were analyzed in days at the National Institutes of Health.
"We had, for the first time, shown that a genetic factor -- a gene -- is responsible for Parkinson's disease in that single family," said Dr. Mihael Polymeropoulos of the National Institutes of Health.
The ultimate discovery of a gene means hope of a treatment for this brain disease that afflicts as many as 1.5 million Americans, leaving them with tremors -- or even immobilized.
"I can say correctly and historically -- in a historical perspective -- this is the most important advance in Parkinson's disease in this century," said Dr. Roger Duvoisin, of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
At least 25 percent of Parkinson's patients probably inherited their condition.
Peter Morabito has struggled with the disease for 10 years. It ultimately killed his father.
"It was a gradual thing," said Morabito. "It was frightening. My father died at age 60 and I'm rounding that number pretty soon."
It's still not clear how common the Italian gene might be, or if more genes are involved in Parkinson's. But scientists now feel their genetic map will ultimately lead them to far more effective treatments and possibly a cure.
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