MHC Haplotype Consortium Web Resource
The MHC Haplotype Consortium - formed by researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge - will define the most common differences in DNA code that can lead to these diseases. An accurate molecular understanding should lead to improved diagnosis and treatment.
"This exciting new development will for the first time allow us to see the true patterns of genetic diversity in an extremely important gene complex that lies at the heart of the immune system. It will not only impact substantially on our understanding of the role of the MHC in disorders such as autoimmune disease and in combating infectious disease, but will reveal fundamental new information on processes such as natural selection that shape human DNA diversity."
Sir Alec Jeffreys, Professor of Genetics at Leicester University
The warriors in our molecular defence against attack by microbes - the components of our immune system - are usually a highly organized and well-disciplined force. Mobile and versatile, new and improved defences are deployed to respond to each invasion.
But sometimes this force receives the wrong orders or misinterprets the correct orders. In a misguided move, as well as fighting off the threats from outside, they attack our own cells, destroying as they go. This treasonous act is autoimmune disease, which underlies a spectrum of disorders from multiple sclerosis to diabetes.
The new website will catalogue the changes in DNA code that lead to confusion and rebellion in the immune system. The DNA differences will be crucial in fighting autoimmune disease, some of which are increasing in the UK and around the world.
The key region of the genome is called the MHC - major histocompatibility complex - a cluster of more than 200 genes on chromosome 6. A principal function of the MHC is to discriminate between 'self' - our own cells and tissues - and 'non-self' - the invaders we would hope to destroy.
The MHC is the most variable region of our genome, driven by the need to ward off the ever-changing pathogens that invade us and so cataloguing the changes related to autoimmune disease is especially difficult. The consortium will analyse the DNA sequence from eight individuals specially chosen for the project.
"As well as being an ethnic mix, these individuals represent the most common combinations of genes associated with certain diseases and so we will identify the most important sequence variants that predispose to these conditions."
Stephan Beck, Head of Human Sequencing at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Already two genomes have been finished and are displayed on the site. Data from the others is being added as soon as it is obtained. The project, which has received £ 2.2 million in funding from the Wellcome Trust, is projected to continue until 2004. Members of the Haplotype Consortium share the view that prepublication release of these data will help speed up the progress of research into autoimmune disease.