Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Terence Ryan is part of the research team that’s investigating how genetics could play a role in limb loss due to vascular disease. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Genetic Remedy

ECU research could help patients with vascular disease avoid limb loss

An East Carolina University researcher is making great strides toward helping patients with vascular disease avoid limb loss. 

Some patients with peripheral artery disease report pain in the legs that goes away with rest. Others with the condition — a narrowing of the arteries to the extremities — experience constant numbness and pain, wounds that don’t heal, and even gangrene. In the worst cases, doctors must amputate one or more limbs. 

It is this latter group that Dr. Joseph McClung, assistant professor of physiology in ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, is working to help. 

“There are cohorts of patients that can have the same vascular anatomy, the same level of ‘clogged tube,’ and one will lose their leg and the other will be perfectly fine,” McClung said. “We see that as an indicator that there’s more to this than just ‘how clogged is the artery?’ We think that some patients are inherently, genetically programmed to respond poorly.”

McClung and his team want to find the specific genes responsible for limb survival or loss, to discover if there is a ‘biological switch’ at the cellular level that lets the body mount a response to stress from the disease and allow the leg to survive. If the researchers can identify the genes that aren’t working, perhaps scientists could introduce functioning genes that allow the body to respond positively to the disease and prevent amputations.

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Originally published July 7, 2017. Written by Elizabeth Willy. Photo by Cliff Hollis.

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