updated 6/8/2007 9:54:43 AM ET 2007-06-08T13:54:43

A team of Arizona researchers think they've found a gene that could help better predict a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

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The gene — called GAB2 — seems to affect the odds that some people will get the progressive neurological disease that afflicts about 5 million Americans, according to the research team led by the Translational Genomics Research Institute and Banner Alzheimer's Institute.

"This is a major breakthrough in Alzheimer's genetic research that will have an impact on the clinical treatment of the disease," said Dr. Dietrich Stephan, director of TGen's neurogenomics division.

Researchers here believe the study marks a new milestone for genetic research of Alzheimer's disease because it used a high-powered computer chip to measure more than a half-million genetic variations, the most robust such study to date.

Alzheimer's triggers memory lapses, clouds the thought process and leads to confusion and death in older adults.

About 78,000 Arizonans suffered from Alzheimer's in 2000, a number expected to jump to 130,000 by 2025, according to Banner Alzheimer's Institute.

Researchers worldwide are not sure what causes the disease. They do know that sufferers' brains are harmed by plaques and tangles that block signals and ultimately cause cells to shrink and die.

TGen's Stephan began investigating the possibility of conducting an ambitious study of the disease three years ago.

He sought funding from the Kronos Science Laboratory in Phoenix, which provided most of the money for the $5 million project.

In turn, Kronos secured the intellectual property rights from the Arizona study and is seeking patent protection for the GAB2 gene and its role in the onset of Alzheimer's.

The study is the latest to draw national attention for the gene investigators at TGen, which launched here five years ago as part of a push to build Arizona's research prowess.

Other significant studies conducted by TGen and collaborators in Arizona include genetic tests relating to pancreatic cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

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