New genetic research to prevent chronic disease

Savannah Meacham |

Loic Yengo’s research will look at risk factors of common diseases based on the link to genetics.
Loic Yengo’s research will look at risk factors of common diseases based on the link to genetics.

Researchers hope to reduce the burden of chronic disease by unlocking the genetic key to predict risks decades before symptoms develop for a person of any ethnicity.

The landmark research will look at the risk factors of common diseases like diabetes or heart disease based on the link to genetics.

“We have a massive burden of chronic disease that is clearly weighing on our economy,” University of Queensland Associate Professor Loic Yengo told AAP.

“The vision is to tackle it by preventing disease rather than curing it.”

However current models of disease risk only go so far due to the sample size.

So the key focus of the research is genetic diversity.

This means making sure all ethnicities and backgrounds are accounted for in the sample pool.

“If we don’t change today’s models and increase diversity studies we’ll end up having a system that can make good predictions for individuals of European descent but poorly in other ancestries,” Prof Yengo said.

Currently, 50 per cent of accuracy is lost in predicting outcomes for Asian descent and 75 per cent for African ancestry.

The research will use DNA sequences from millions of participants all over the world to ensure diversity and accuracy in the models and ultimately accessible treatment for all backgrounds.

There will also be an opportunity for Australians with a mixed ancestry – like one European descent parent and one of Asian descent – to participate in the research.

“It will really help us understand why we are losing this accuracy to predict diseases,” Prof Yengo said.

The research will look at both genetic links to disease and whether implementing preventative measures from birth can change the outcome.

Between 30 to 50 per cent of genetic risk can be accounted for in chronic disease, Prof Yengo says.

So by investigating the genetic risk factor researchers then can look at intervening from birth with screening for chronic disease or lifestyle changes.

Prof Yengo has a particular passion for biology and genetics which is the fuel behind his desire to pursue this research.

He wants to find out how much our DNA contributes to our differences – and now the possibility of disease.

The UQ team has received $8 million in funding over the next eight years for research under the Snow Medical Research Foundation fellowship with hopes the boost will accelerate the findings.

Prof Yengo says the funding will help investigate at a significant worldwide scale to hopefully make a difference.