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Sunday, April 01, 2007

DNA Lactose Intolerance Test Developed - and Dropped

I remember my lactose intolerance test well, even though it took place 29 years ago.

I drink the normal solution of lactose and water and spent the next two hours ducking in and out of the bathroom as my intestines spasmed.

When I went back into the doctor's office, he took one look at how green my face was and told me that there was no need to wait for the results of the test. I had lactose intolerance. (Of course, he sent the test to the lab for processing anyway.)

I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of you have suffered through this test since. Or how many just refuse to put yourself through it.

Good news. A Finnish team of researchers have discovered a laboratory test that looks at your DNA for the gene that regulates the production of the lactase enzyme, the one that digests lactose.

Arja-Leena Paavola writes in the Quarterly of the University of Helsinki about Academy Professor Leena Peltonen-Palotie.

Finns have a high respect for science and thereby genetic research, too. The majority of Finns are willing to participate in studies. This is notable, since in many countries people can be quite reluctant to give DNA samples, even for research purposes.

“My foreign colleagues often point this out. My view is that thanks to the high standard of education in Finland, Finns have a positive attitude towards research and a strong belief in the benefits of science for their children and grandchildren. I would also presume that the doctors of previous generations did a good job, because Finns seem to have confidence in our medical research and in our public health-care system,” the professor says.

Using Finnish study samples Peltonen-Palotie’s research group has identified, for example, the DNA variant that prevents the normal breakdown of lactose in intestinal cells after weaning period, thus causing lactose intolerance. Finding the DNA variant has enabled the development of a simple laboratory test that can be used for the diagnosis of lactose intolerance instead of earlier cumbersome intestinal tests.

Yes, I know that today is April First. This good news is emphatically not an April Fools' Day prank, but there is a catch to it.

The press release announcing the breakthrough was sent out five years ago, back in 2002. The Prometheus Laboratories web site today doesn't even mention the LACTOtype test, as it was known.

So what happened?

I wish I knew. Perhaps it wasn't accurate enough. Perhaps it was too expensive. Perhaps doctors are too set in their ways and didn't want to try it.

As long as such a test is possible, though, it's bound to come back sometime in the future. It's too good an idea not to come to pass.

In the meantime ask your doctor about the LACTOtype test and see if it rings any bells.

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