April 12, 2004
CORAL could hold the key to solving fungal infections in humans.
So too could fruit flies when it comes to Down Syndrome and mice in
the case of childhood diabetes.
James Cook University's Comparative Genomics Centre is hunting for the genetic and environmental triggers of birth defects and autoimmune diseases -- and they're looking in places even scientists had once never thought to look.
"We are leaders in Australia and arguably in the world, with a number of models no one else has," Professor of molecular cell biology Alan Baxter said.
"Our approach is really quite different -- we've proven things nobody would have expected."
Professor Baxter, head of the JCU genomics centre, said coral, mice and insects could help prevent a list of diseases such as diabetes, gastritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis.
He said simple organisms like coral and the fruit fly had a surprisingly similar make-up, which could be used as models for better understanding the genetic processes involved in diseases and birth defects like Down Syndrome.
"The genes that control the shape of a body in a fruit fly are very similar to the genes that control the shape of a body in a human," Professor Baxter said.
"We're able to look at what happens if one of these genes are defective in the body in the form of a fly and apply that to same events that occur in the human body."
Childhood (type 1) diabetes has been a major focus, with studies showing that injecting mice with extra NKT cells helped prevent diabetes in the animals. The aim now was to translate that to humans.
Professor Baxter said much work being carried out at the centre focused on genes that interacted with environmental factors to produce disease.
Current studies include altering living conditions for mice (such as light and humidity levels) to understand which variables lessen the chance of disease.
"Several diseases of the immune system are amenable to manipulating the environment for a particular individual in a particular way," Professor Baxter said.
"Further north, lupus is more common; further south it's MS and type 1 diabetes.
"The incidence of diabetes had doubled every 15 years since WWII.
"The rise in incidence can only be explained by a change in environment -- if you can double you can halve it."
The team has also identified the locations of four genes responsible for causing gastritis, and has been able to map the movements of a white blood cell that has most of the control over the immune system.
But Prof Baxter said the road ahead in truly understanding the human immune system was long.
"We know about 3 per cent of what we want to know," Professor Baxter
said. "We want to be able to prevent all diseases, but we are a long way
from having the information we need to provide the medical service that
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