Wake up and smell the gene therapy!

Mice born without a sense of smell have had their deficient sense restored to them, thanks to research by a team of gene therapists led by the University of Michigan Medical School. Sufferers of anosmia, or the inability to perceive smells, will be heartened by the results, which mark a crucial step in olfactory gene research. Those who, like the mice, were born without a sense of smell, will certainly benefit from the Michigan team’s research, but their findings will also be extremely valuable in research into treatments for diseased cilia, which can affect the body in many ways aside from a person’s sense of smell.

Cilia are the tiny hair-like structures which lie on the surfaces of cells throughout the body. Scientists believe that nearly every cell in the body has the capacity to grow one or more cilia. If they are damaged or become diseased, they can cause many kinds of illnesses, often debilitating or even fatal, such as blindness, deafness and kidney disease. Though the researchers at the medical school are keen to emphasise that it will be some time before they can progress from treating mice to treating humans, it seems that their discoveries, which pave the way towards a better understanding of olfactory dysfunction at the cellular level, will be especially important for those who have lost their sense of smell due to a genetic disease, rather than from through head trauma, aging, or sinus problems. From there on, it seems that the possibility to cure not only olfactory dysfunction, but also other cilia-related diseases, is within the geneticists reach.

A genetic mutation in the Ift88 gene creates difficulties in the production of cilia, resulting in the loss of a person’s – or indeed, a mouse’s – sense of smell. By creating a virus containing a healthy, undamaged  version of the affected gene, the research team were able to ‘infect’ the mice across three consecutive days, effectively restoring the cilia, and thus their sense of smell. An impressive feat, but more impressive still is the scope of possibility that accompanies this olfactory revolution: today, geneticists are restoring the sense of smell in mice; tomorrow, it seems, the stage is set for the treatment of all diseases caused by cilia dysfunction. And that is a very promising prospect indeed.

Sources include: University of Michigan Health System, BBC, News Medical


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