Researchers at King’s College London have for the first time identified a gene linked to age-related degeneration of the intervertebral discs in the spine, a common cause of lower back pain. Costing the UK an estimated £7billion a year due to sickness leave and treatment costs, the causes of back pain are not yet fully understood. Until now, the genetic cause of lower back pain associated with lumbar disc degeneration (LDD) was unknown, but the largest study to date, published online on September 19, 2012 in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, has revealed an association with the PARK2 gene. Mutations in this gene are already known to cause a familial form of Parkinson's disease known as autosomal recessive juvenile Parkinson disease. The researchers, funded by the Wellcome Trust and Arthritis Research UK, say more research into this surprising association needs to be carried out in order to fully understand how it is triggered, but this new finding could ultimately pave the way towards developing new treatments in the future. LDD is a common age-related trait, with over a third of middle-aged women having at least one degenerate disc in the spine. Discs become dehydrated, lose height and the vertebrae next to the discs develop bony growths called osteophytes. These changes can cause or contribute to lower back pain. LDD is inherited in between 65 – 80 per cent of people with the condition, suggesting that genes play a key role. Scientists compared MRI images of the spine in 4,600 individuals with genome-wide association data, which mapped the genes of all the volunteers. They identified that the gene PARK2 was implicated in people with degenerate discs and could affect the speed at which they deteriorate. The researchers say the results show that the gene may be switched off in people with LDD.
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