Avera Medical Minute: The benefits of researching DNA for potential health risks

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Avera has worked with two scientists for the past ten years, researching the genes of identical twins. It's a partnership between three countries. The two doctors visited Sioux Falls recently, providing an update on findings.

The partnership is between the Netherlands, Australia and the Midwest. It started about ten years ago.

"Back then, we didn't dream that we would ever get so far as actually identify the genes," Dr. Dorret Boomsma said, who is a biological psychologist with the Netherlands Twin Register.

She and Dr. Nick Martin have worked together for a while studying the genetics of twins. Dr. Nick Martin is the co-founder of the Australian Twin Registry and a senior scientist. They applied for a large grant ten years ago, but a large portion of that money had to stay in the United States. So that's when Avera came into the picture.

"Who then did an enormous amount of genotyping for the Dutch Twin Register, and that work is a lot of the basis of a lot of the things we're still doing," Dr. Boomsma said.

Dr. Gareth Davies said this is an incredible partnership.

"But they're literally the top people in their field, world-renowned geneticists, the top of their field in twin genetics," Dr. Davies said. "And twin genetics is very, very important."

The reason twin genetics is important is because doctors can study two people with the same DNA.

"Why does one twin develop heart disease and one twin not? They have the same DNA. It's not a mystery to discover different environmental factors," Dr. Davies said.

This is how Dr. Boomsma and Dr. Martin said they found out ADHD is hereditary.

"We can now take those results from the genes and quantify for an individual basis what people's liability is to develop psychiatric disorder, mental disease, cardiovascular disease, etc.," Dr. Boomsma said.

They said there's still a lot of work ahead though.

"Amazingly, we're actually at that point, where this is becoming practical," Dr. Martin said. "We're already in a position that once the legal aspects are sorted out, and the ethical aspects and insurance aspects and so on, I mean just at a scientific level, we're already able to tell people what their risk is for a whole range of disease,"

The eventual goal is to let patients know they could be at risk for things like cardiovascular disease, depression, or obesity just by analyzing their genetics.

The doctors said their next step in research is looking at infertility. They've seen it become more of an issue for women.