Transgenic flock brought to UK for research into incurable brain condition, which affects more than 6,700 people in the country
Scientists at Cambridge University have co-opted an unusual ally in their battle to find treatments for an incurable degenerative ailment that affects thousands of people in the UK. They have taken charge of a flock of merino sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the gene for Huntington’s disease.
The research, led by neuroscientist Professor Jenny Morton, aims to understand how to pinpoint early symptoms of the brain condition, which affects more than 6,700 people in the UK.
The gene responsible for Huntington’s was isolated more then 30 years ago but scientists have yet to develop drugs that might halt or even slow its development in patients. The brain’s complexity has defied attempts to understand how the condition develops.
“Until now, much of our effort has been based on research on mice or rats,” said Morton. “But sheep should make better research subjects. Not only do they live much longer than rodents, their brains are larger and closer in size and structure to humans.”
Huntington’s disease, which affects men and women equally, is an inherited neurological condition whose symptoms manifest themselves in adulthood, usually between 35 and 55. Initially mood, personality, coordination and memory are affected but, as the disease progresses, speech, swallowing and motor function deteriorate until death occurs 10 to 25 years after symptoms first appear. There is no known cure for Huntington’s disease although there are treatments to manage symptoms.
Individuals with a parent affected by Huntington’s have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the gene. Charles Sabine, a former TV war correspondent and spokesman for Huntington’s patients, highlights how the disease affects families. “My father died of the condition and so did my half-brother. My brother is now in the final stages of the disease. I also carry the gene. So I am the next on the conveyor belt,” he told the Observer.