Grad students help find elusive genes

September 23, 2004, vol. 31, no. 2

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Finding the genes that cause a rare disorder, whose traits are linked to more common diseases such as obesity and kidney disease, is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

But an international team of researchers, including SFU molecular biologist Willie Davidson, is finding the genetic needles with the help of graduate students. “It's getting more difficult because we have isolated all of the genes associated with parts of the human genome known to be involved in the transmission of BBS,” explains Davidson. “But there are BBS families without mutations in these genes.”

Davidson and his colleagues recently located an eighth gene that causes Bardet-Biedl syndrome (BBS), a multisystemic hereditary disorder that affects one in 160,000 people worldwide. This is the team's second discovery of a BBS gene this year.

One of Davidson's doctoral students, Yanli Fan, and another from molecular biologist Michel Leroux's lab, Muneer Esmail, helped the team identify ARL6 or BBS3 as a new gene associated with BBS.

The students studied a large complex of Newfoundland families with BBS, in which the ARL6 gene was not functioning properly. BBS is 10 times more common in Newfoundland than elsewhere. The duo's discovery helped their team, which includes three SFU labs, locate three more families worldwide with this newly discovered BBS gene.

The team's findings have been published in the Aug. 15 issue of Nature Genetics.

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