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New way to spot gene damage

CSIRO : 27 March, 2000  (New Product)
Australian scientists have developed a quick and reliable technique for assessing genetic damage by measuring chromosome abnormalities. 'Genetic damage can occur through exposure to radiation or chemicals, or even naturally as part of the ageing process. The reason that people worry about it is that it may lead to the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases,' says CSIRO researcher Dr Michael Fenech.
The research is one of the highlights of Australian science that is on show this week at Bio2000 , an international biotechnology fair in Boston, USA.

The technique, known as the micronucleus assay, was developed by Dr Fenech while he was a student at the Flinders University of South Australia.

The micronucleus assay technique is likely to have a number of important uses such as establishing how much genetic damage is acceptable in a population; screening new pharmaceuticals and chemicals to ensure they are safe to release; determining the level of increase in genetic damage following a major accident and helping establish the links between diet and genetic damage.

Dr Fenech says that it could lead to a simple laboratory technique which will help identify people who are prone to cancer or Alzheimer's disease.

'This will give people more options. If they know that they are in a higher risk group they will be able to take dietary and other steps to help reduce that risk,' says Dr Fenech.

The same technology can be used to predict the radiosensitivity of tumours. In future, this may assist in developing more effective, personalised radiotherapy treatments for individual cancer patients.

'The technique was used by Russian scientists to study 200 children exposed to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident,' says Dr Fenech. It is being used currently by Australian and Russian scientists in follow-up studies to establish if diet or dietary change can reduce spontaneous and radiation-induced genetic damage.

The results of this should become available within the next five years.

CSIRO is also leading an international collaboration known as the HUMN Project, using the technique to assess DNA damage in large populations. This involves more than 40 laboratories world-wide.

'Through this work we have also made significant progress in determining the normal rates of genetic damage in human populations across the globe. A data base of information from 22 countries has been established. This will be valuable for many purposes, for example, to help assess the potential of different environments and lifestyles, such as life in space stations, to damage DNA,' says Dr Fenech.
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