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DURHAM, N.C. -- In response to declining government funding for biomedical research, researchers at Duke University Medical Center have turned to private financial support for an ambitious project to identify the genetic components underlying complex, late-onset diseases. These include osteoarthritis, coronary artery disease, stroke, diabetes, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.

Dr. Allen Roses, whose neurology team discovered a susceptibility gene for Alzheimer's disease, has set up two privately-funded centers to expand Duke's expertise in locating genes for complex human diseases into a full-scale search for genes and therapies for common late-in-life diseases.

Roses discussed the "GOLD" Project -- which stands for the Genetics of Late-Onset Diseases -- at the 33rd New Horizons in Science Briefing, hosted this year by Duke. The briefing is conducted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, a non-profit organization of journalists aimed at enhancing the quality of science reporting.

"Federal funding is waning, and because of changes in health care financing, never again will clinical dollars pay for basic research, such as the $7 million annually that Duke's department of medicine had donated to its scientists," says Roses, professor of neurobiology and chief of the division of neurology. "We want to survive by inventing things that serve mankind. We want to quickly figure out how genes promote disease, then work on a therapy, much like our work on Alzheimer's disease."

The GOLD project will look for genetic linkages in the human genome that predispose people to develop particular diseases. Researchers will screen the genetic material from hundreds of affected patients to find patterns of genetic similarity in patients affected by disease. The project will be funded both by the medical center and by industry partners.

Once genetic linkages have been established, a new developmental laboratory, called the Deane Laboratory, will identify specific genes in the linkage regions involved in the disorders. The laboratory was established at Duke by Carol and Disque Deane with a gift of greater than $1 million per year for 5 years for direct operating expenses. The gift may be used to fund multinational research projects involving teams of domestic and international researchers under the direction of Roses. Once specific predisposing genes have been identified, scientists will use this knowledge to search for curative or therapeutic agents for patients.

Work by the Duke researchers already has shown results, Roses told the science writers at the briefing. Duke has filed for a patent on applications resulting from an understanding of the mechanisms involved in killing specific nerve cells in Huntington's disease. It is a "triplet repeat" disease in which a portion of the genetic code is abnormally expanded, resulting in a long string of the amino acid polyglutamine being repeated in the encoded protein.