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Scientists have identified a Gene Linked to Back Pain

Medical researchers from King’s College in London recently identified a gene which is linked to age-related degeneration of the intervertebral discs located in the spine. This degeneration is a very common cause of lower back pain in people who are over 50.

Back pain in particular has become an issue in the United Kingdom. With an estimated cost of £7 billion (which is slightly over $11 billion in US currency) due to lost wages and treatment expenses, scientists have yet to fully understand the cause of back pain in most patients. Up until this recent discovery, the genetic cause of lower back pain that was associated with lumbar disk degeneration was a mystery. However, in the largest back pain clinical study ever conducted on record, researchers were able to uncover an association with the PARK2 gene in their participants.

(The results of this study have been published in the latest edition of Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.)

Back Pain Study funded by Arthritis Research UK

This latest back pain clinical trial was funded by Arthritis Research UK and the Wellcome Trust. Obviously, now that this gene association has been identified, there will have to be more tests conducted in this area in order to fully understand how the gene is triggered. Scientists are optimistic that this discovery will undoubtedly lead to a number of new treatments for back pain in the near future.

Lumbar disk degeneration (LDD) is a common age-related condition, with nearly a third of all middle-aged women experiencing at least one degenerate disc in their spine. Over time, our discs can dehydrate, which causes us to lose some of our height, and then the adjacent vertebrae could start to develop bony growths known as osteophytes (one of the symptoms commonly associated with osteoarthritis). Eventually, these various changes can cause a person to start developing lower back pain. Now, with this condition having been inherited in nearly 80% of all cases, scientists believe that genes play a crucial role here.

A Gene which can alter the Rate of Deterioration

During the study, the research team compared spinal MRI images from 4,600 participants to their genome-wide association data (a full map of the genes of all the participants in the clinical trial). The gene, PARK2, was identified in the participants who possessed degenerate discs, and an analysis seemed to suggest that this gene could alter the rate of deterioration in the discs.

According to the results, there may also be a way for scientists to switch off the gene in the people who have LDD. As of now, they would still need to conduct a significant amount of research before they could determine how to do this effectively, but evidence suggests that various environmental factors, such as a person’s diet and overall lifestyle, could actually trigger the switch (environmental factors can make changes to genes through a process known as epigenetic modification).

Looking Forward: Developing New Treatments for a Common Problem

Back pain is a far too common issue for people, especially as they get older. This is a condition that can start to have a significant impact on the quality of one’s life if it is not properly taken care of. A look at the economy in the UK shows that back pain is one of the most common causes of sick leave. The lost productivity alone costs billions!

This back pain clinical trial was one of the first of its kind ever conducted. By collecting data from people all over the world, this research team has provided an unprecedented insight into the processes of normal human biology. Now that they have identified this PARK2 gene, scientists can get to work on developing even better treatments for lower back pain.

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