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Sardinia attracts scientists to study aging


Move over Iceland and Estonia. The Mediterranean island of Sardinia is the latest European site to host a major genetic research study. Sardinia's geographic isolation throughout history has limited the genetic diversity of its people, and scientists are betting that this will make help them discover genes involved in aging.

In 2001, Antonio Todde of Sardinia was the world's oldest living man. He died last year at the age of 112 years.

The US National Institute on Aging (NIA) has announced a five-year initiative to search for genes associated with vascular stiffness and other causes of cardiovascular diseases in old age. Collaborating on the project, called ProgeNIA, is the Italian National Research Council.

Sardinia is well suited for the study because the residents share common ancestors and therefore genetic traits as well. In the first phase of the project, researchers will evaluate two traits in volunteers—high arterial stiffness and positive emotions. Vascular stiffness is an important predictor of mortality from heart disease, and positive emotions—joy, happiness, love, and excitement—influence health as we age.

Volunteers who have extreme values for either or both traits will be identified and their family members also tested. The DNA of families with traits of interest will be analyzed to identify genetic factors.

The researchers plan to test about 4,000 persons in the remote Sardinian province of Ogliastra. The 300,000 residents of this mountainous region on the eastern side of the island represent an ideal study population. "Sardinians speak of Ogliastra as an island within the island," said David Schlessinger, who heads NIA's Laboratory of Genetics, in a statement on the project.

Two other genetic studies are underway in Sardinia. In the remote mountain village of Talana, Mario Pirastu, of Istituto di Genetica Molecolare, is leading a search for genes involved in common illnesses in Sardinia, such as diabetes, kidney stones and asthma. And researchers from the University of Sassari and others are investigating genetic explanations for the extreme longevity of men in certain Sardinian provinces.

See related GNN articles on population studies in Estonia and Iceland
»Estonian Genome Project moves forward with funding
»Gene candidate mapped for late-onset Parkinson's disease

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Sardinians spark NIA genetic research effort. Press release, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Maryland (February 1, 2002).

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