Singapore scientists discover new genes linked to leprosy

SINGAPORE - Scientists in Singapore have discovered six new genes that influence people's risk of developing leprosy, an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs. This brings the total number of known genes linked to the disease to 16.

Human genes come in pairs, so a person can theoretically carry 32 detrimental genes related to leprosy. The scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) found that if a person has just one of the genes, his risk of developing leprosy increases by 20 to 50 per cent.

People who have 20 or more of the genes are eight times more likely to develop leprosy compared to those who have 12 or fewer of them. People who are infected with leprosy may not be aware of their condition as symptoms usually appear only five to 20 years after the infection.

The scientists believe the discovery could help doctors predict a person's risk of developing the disease, and also help guide public healthcare policymakers in drafting better preventative measures for high-risk medical staff who work in close contact with leprosy patients. The research could also be used to develop a genetic test to screen for people who have a high risk of developing the disease.

"Although commonly viewed as a medieval affliction, leprosy remains a major health problem in developing countries, claiming over 200,000 new patients worldwide annually, with two to three million people permanently disabled," said Professor Liu Jianjun, GIS's deputy director for research programmes. He was also the GIS study's senior author.

"With the discovery of more gene variants that affect the risk of developing leprosy, we can develop better diagnostic, treatment and preventive strategies to one day eradicate leprosy permanently," he said.