Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Firm buys DNA data of Ogliastra locals to find out why many live past 100

While the average life expectancy worldwide is currently 71 years old, in one area of Sardinia, a huge number of residents are living past their 100th birthday. The reasons behind their longer lives are currently unknown, but scientists might soon be getting some answers.

A British biotechnology company has bought the genetic data of almost 13,000 residents in the Ogliastra area of Sardinia, Italy, in the hopes of unravelling the mystery.

Tiziana Life Science, which is mainly focused on cancer and immune diseases, has bought biological samples of residents to create a 'biobank' of data.

In Ogliastra, roughly one in every 2,000 people lives to celebrate their 100th birthday. This is about five times the rate in most developed countries, such as the UK and USA. 

To understand why this is the case, the company has bought more than 230,000 biological samples - such as frozen blood - from 12,600 residents. The samples have also been matched with medical reports, and official records such as death certificates dating back more than 400 years.

Mr Gabriele Cerrone, Tiziana's chairman and founder told the Financial Times that he hoped the data will provide information on how a long life expectancy is linked to both genetics and the environment.

Mr Cerrone said: 'Sardinia is renowned as one of only three regions in the world with an exceptionally high proportion of centenarians.

'The opportunity is to generate valuable insights into gene regulatory networks, genotype-phenotype linkage and gene-environment interactions that will feed into and inform our drug discovery and diagnostic programmes.'

Previous studies have suggested that people from certain parts of Japan and the Mediterranean live longer because of healthy diets rich in fish and vegetables and low in fats. However, some scientists are now challenging this theory, and are researching communities to explore what else could be the cause.

For example, another study is looking at centenarians who live in Acciaroli, a remote fishing village in the south of Italy. 

While the village has an extremely high proportion of people living past 100, many residents are overweight and smoke which suggests the reason they are living longer goes beyond diet. 

The explanation as to why people live longer in the Ogliastra is not going to be simple.

But with the company's background in cancer and immune diseases, a good start will be to search for genetic traits related to various diseases. 

Mr Cerrone said: 'We believe our management team have the capability, expertise and insights to discover new drugs and diagnostics to address important unmet medical needs using this biobank resource.'

Despite living long lives, the people of Ogliastra on average have a higher incidence of several diseases including asthma and osteoporosis.

Most of Ogliastra's residents are directly descended from the same group of people which should make it somewhat easier for scientists to pinpoint genetic patterns related to these diseases.   

Mr Cerrone told the Financial Times that the company would mine the biobank to see if specific genetic variations were responsible for the illnesses. 

This should help the company design specific drugs to treat them, or diagnostic tests that might be able to predict whether someone is likely to develop the conditions. 

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