Scientists have discovered a gene strongly implicated in osteoporosis, raising hope of a potential new treatment and early detection of the bone-thinning disease that is often caught too late.
The gene called GPC6 is one of 153 new gene variants associated with osteoporosis identified by Australian and Canadian researchers.
"What makes this gene particularly interesting is that it encodes a protein that is present on the surface of cells, making it a potential candidate for a drug target," said Professor David Evans at the University of Queensland's Diamantina Institute.
Studies in mice showed when this particular gene was removed bone thickness increases, said Dr Evans.
One in 10 Australians aged over 50 have osteoporosis or low bone mineral density, and the disease is more common in women than in men.
Unfortunately the disease often goes undetected until a fracture occurs.
To improve early detection and treatment, researchers at the University of Queensland and McGill University in Canada conducted a genome-wide association study involving more than 140,000 individuals from the UK Biobank.
Bone mineral density assessments were also taken from ultrasounds of a participants' heel.
"In 8540 participants who reported previous fractures from simple falls, associations were made with 12 of the new gene regions," said Associate Professor J Brent Richards from McGill University.
The findings, published in journal Nature Genetics, triple the number of genes known to be implicated in the loss of bone density and could be used to develop programs in the future to identify individuals at risk, say the reserashers.
A further study is now underway of half a million individuals to shed more light on the genetics underlying the disease.