Volume 92, Issue 89

Wednesday, March 18, 1999


CFS to take feds to court

SOGS president seeks re-election

Johanson does Western

Underage drinkers to pay bigger tab

Gene mutation found


Caught on campus

Caught on campus too

Gene mutation found

By John Intini
Gazette Staff

A genetic breakthrough, led by two Western scientists, may help answer why Canadian aboriginals suffer from high levels of diabetes.

Scientists announced Tuesday the discovery of a mutation in the Hepatic Nuclear Factor One gene after four years of extensive research in the Oji-Cree community on Sandy Lake, Ontario. The discovery of this mutation makes it possible to identify people in this community who might be susceptible to diabetes and therefore implement preventative measures.

The gene variant, described as a "thrifty gene," is specific to the 2,000 Oji-Cree people in the Northern Ontario community. Bernard Zinman, director of the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre at the University of Toronto, defined the "thrifty gene" as one which allowed the Oji-Cree people to store energy, once a necessity based on inconsistent eating patterns during 14,000 years of semi-nomadic existence. Over the last century the westernization of the aboriginal lifestyle has considerably changed the Oji-Cree's way of life and diet.

"The people no longer exercise 50 miles a day," Zinman said. "They are not used to the fat content and carbohydrate intake in Western foods, which has turned a genetic advantage into a genetic disadvantage."

Stewart Harris, a professor at Western's Centre for Studies and Family Medicine who has also been practicing family medicine on the reserve since 1990, said diabetes inflicts 25 per cent of the Oji-Cree community over the age of 10, the world's third-highest level of adult diabetes in a specific community.

This is a significant change from 40 years ago when the level of diabetes in the Sandy Lake reserve was zero, Harris said. He added obesity, a leading cause of diabetes, has become prevalent in the community.

Robert Hegele, director of the Blackburn Genetics Laboratory at the Robarts Research Institute at Western, said the discovery of the gene mutation was made about a year ago during DNA sequence analysis.

Since the gene variation exists in only half the diabetic population, Harris said it proves there are other causal genes to be discovered. However, this is the first time a mutation has been found in a whole population.

Hegele surveyed 1,000 people in 10 populations, including other ethnic and aboriginal groups, but failed to find one with the same mutation.

Harris said the discovery will pave the way to greater prevention and nutritional education for high risk patients. However, Harris made clear it is not the final step in solving the aboriginal diabetes problem.

"It would be tragic to stop now when it seems we're so close to a huge breakthrough," he said. "Although this study is specific to aboriginals, lessons learned can be easily applied to screening tests and other preventative efforts."

Western's VP-research Bill Bridger said he views the discovery as comparable to the discovery of early diagnosis of sickle cell anemia in Africa, since both can lead to greater preventative measures.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999