School of Medicine genetic researchers search for clues to common diseases in Amish DNA
The University of Maryland Amish Research Clinic, which has grown significantly over the past several years, has moved from its longtime home in Strasburg, Pa., to a larger facility in nearby Lancaster, Pa. An open house will be held on Saturday, March 31, 2007, from noon to 4 p.m., at the new clinic at 1861 William Penn Way in Lancaster.
Alan R. Shuldiner, M.D., a nationally recognized University of Maryland endocrinologist and diabetes expert who founded the clinic in 1995, says the clinic outgrew its previous location at the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg. Dr. Shuldiner had been leasing space on the ground floor of the Clinic for Special Children, which is well known for treating Amish children with rare genetic disorders.
With more than double the amount of space, the new 3,300-square foot facility has a bigger laboratory, more room to conduct clinical tests, such as ultrasound examinations and bone density scans, and a larger waiting area, Dr. Shuldiner says. There is also ample parking, including space for horse-drawn buggies.
“We’re very excited to enter the next phase of our partnership with the Amish community. The success of our research is based in large part on the tremendous support that we have received from thousands of Amish who have volunteered for our studies over the years,” says Dr. Shuldiner, professor of medicine and head of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Dr. Shuldiner, who is also director of the Program in Genetics and Genomic Medicine at the School of Medicine, and his team of researchers have conducted more than a dozen studies with the Old Order Amish, looking for genes that may cause common diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and heart disease.
“We have made significant strides in increasing our knowledge of these diseases and hope that one day our research will help to develop better treatments and possibly even cures,” he says. He adds that the Amish also have benefited because the clinic has provided millions of dollars of free health screenings.
More than 3,000 Amish volunteers have participated in Dr. Shuldiner’s research studies. Although they shun most technology, the Amish have shown a remarkable willingness to participate in modern genetic research. Dr. Shuldiner also employs more than a dozen Amish community liaisons who work with clinic staff and travel with staff members on home visits.
Members of the Amish community and the clinic staff donated their time, labor and materials in order to make the new clinic a reality, Dr. Shuldiner says.
The Amish are ideal for genetic studies because they are a genetically homogenous people who trace their ancestry back 14 generations to a small group who came to Pennsylvania from Europe in the mid-1700s, according to Dr. Shuldiner. They also have large families, keep detailed genealogical records, and have a similar rural way of life.
In one of the ongoing studies, University of Maryland researchers are trying to identify genes that might predict how a person responds to medications commonly used to treat and prevent cardiovascular disease. The research is funded by a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2002, Dr. Shuldiner received a separate four-year, $10.6 million NIH grant to study how genes and lifestyle factors influence people’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Other studies have focused on diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and osteoporosis.
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