Health Team

In pain? For some, gene studies could provide a quick cure

Posted August 23

— Many people spend years searching for a diagnosis of a debilitating medical problem, paying for treatments or surgery that don't help. Now, researchers at UNC say that, for some, recent advances in genetic testing could fix their problems once and for all.

Elizabeth Davis, a local genes study participant, does not take walking for granted. For 30 years, she could barely walk at all. "When I was 6, I started walking on my toes," she said. "I started going to different doctors, trying to find out what it was."

The muscles in Davis' foot had tightened up, causing her pain. She needed crutches and, sometimes, a wheelchair. For years, the cause of her condition remained a mystery.

According to Dr. James Evans, a researcher at UNC's Center for Genetic Medicine, about 30 percent of patients find an answer to their problems when they participate in a genes study. Participants' blood samples are analyzed with the latest advances in DNA sequencing.

"The patients themselves typically seek us out because they've been looking for answers for a long time," said Evans. "There might not be a known treatment, so sometimes that answer doesn't really change their life significantly."

Davis saw positive results after participating in the study, and Dr. Jonathan Berg, an Assistant Professor of Genetics at UNC, was happy with the results. "Her case is an unusual one in that it just happened to be a condition that is exquisitely treatable -- with just a pill," said Berg.

The genes study discovered that Davis had a muscle rigidity problem similar to that of many people with Parkinson's Disease. Doctors learned that it was Dopa, a drug used by millions of Americans with the disease, could help Davis walk again.

"The relief was fast and just by taking a quarter of a pill," said Davis. "I overheard my oldest son telling his friend that 'his mom is not on crutches anymore.' I'll never forget him saying that."

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has even bigger plans for the future. UNC researchers say they're planning a randomized controlled trial to see if these types of genetic tests can benefit patients in the long run and prove to be a cost-effective diagnostic test.


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