Institute of Genetics and Cancer

Islanders to play crucial role in bid to beat killer diseases

Shetland residents are at the forefront of research efforts to pinpoint the causes of heart disease, stroke and diabetes: February 2013

People living in Shetland are to be at the forefront of efforts to pinpoint the causes of life-threatening diseases, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have been awarded more than £600,000 by the Medical Research Council to recruit 2000 volunteers from Britain’s most northerly isles to take part in a study that will help further understand how genes affect our health.

Shetland has been chosen for the research because its gene pool is relatively stable, compared with more diverse urban populations in other parts of the UK. This stability offers many advantages in identifying disease-linked genes because the effect of gene variants – or changes in a person’s DNA – can be more easily identified.

Researchers will use the latest genetic analysis techniques to find the gene variants that increase the risk of developing illnesses such as glaucoma and lung disease.

The team will also investigate how genes contribute to skills such as a person’s sense of direction and in intellectual issues including cognitive decline in old age.

Volunteers for the Viking Health Study will be asked to visit a clinic in Lerwick for an health check.

Participants will have a number measurements taken, including weight, blood pressure and heart rhythm, and will also be asked to give a blood sample.  This will be used to test their cholesterol, blood sugar and liver function as well as providing a biobank of DNA and blood samples for future studies.

Volunteers will also have ultrasound scans and other tests to determine whether their arteries have hardened.

The study follows a similar project in Orkney, where researchers worked for more than five years in a global partnership to identify some 800 genes linked to ill health.

The study will also give the opportunity to dig deeper into the Norse Viking heritage of the Northern Isles, which have more Scandinavian DNA than anywhere else in Britain.

Dr Jim Wilson, from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Population Health Studies, said: “If we hope to find better ways of diagnosing and treating conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, we must first understand what causes them on a very basic level. Research like this helps us to understand how our genes interact with our environment and behaviour to affect our health.  In this way the Viking Health Study should benefit future generations across Scotland and beyond.”

 “We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the people in volunteering in their thousands for our Orkney project. I hope that the people of Shetland will feel similarly excited about being part of such important health research.

Prof Nick Hastie, director of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, said: I am delighted that the Medical Research Council has recognised the considerable potential contribution that the people of Shetland can make to our understanding of human health and illness. We are excited about working with the people of Shetland who I'm sure, like the Orcadian population, will give their time generously.”

The study is funded by the Medical Research Council as part of a £5.3 million award to the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine to study health and disease.

Related Links

BBC News: Shetlanders wanted for DNA health 'Viking' study: February 2013

Population and Disease Genetics Group: Dr Jim Wilson