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Shetland gene pool could hold key to identifying life-threatening illnesses

Shetland's relatively stable gene pool could hold the key to identifying life-threatening genetic illnesses, according to scientists.

Experts have been awarded more than £600,000 to recruit 2,000 volunteers from Shetland, where the gene pool is less diverse than other more urban parts of the UK.

The work could unlock the genetic markers for diseases such heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

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.

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."

Volunteers will be asked to visit a clinic in Lerwick for a health check.

Participants will have a number of 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 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.

Prof Nick Hastie, director of the University of Edinburgh's Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, said: "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.

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