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Am J Hum Genet. 2002 Feb;70(2):435-47. Epub 2002 Jan 3.

Gdnf haploinsufficiency causes Hirschsprung-like intestinal obstruction and early-onset lethality in mice.

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National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20814-2790, USA.


Hirschsprung disease (HSCR) is a common congenital disorder that results in intestinal obstruction and lethality, as a result of defective innervation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Despite its congenital origin, the molecular etiology of HSCR remains elusive for >70% of patients. Although mutations in the c-RET receptor gene are frequently detected in patients with HSCR, mutations in the gene encoding its ligand (glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor [GDNF]), are rarely found. In an effort to establish a possible link between human HSCR and mutations affecting the Gdnf locus, we studied a large population of mice heterozygous for a Gdnf null mutation. This Gdnf(+/-) mutant cohort recapitulates complex features characteristic of HSCR, including dominant inheritance, incomplete penetrance, and variable severity of symptoms. The lack of one functioning Gdnf allele causes a spectrum of defects in gastrointestinal motility and predisposes the mutant mice to HSCR-like phenotypes. As many as one in five Gdnf(+/-) mutant mice die shortly after birth. Using a transgenic marking strategy, we identified hypoganglionosis of the gastrointestinal tract as a developmental defect that renders the mutant mice susceptible to clinical symptoms of HSCR. Our findings offer a plausible way to link an array of seemingly disparate features characteristic of a complex disease to a much more narrowly defined genetic cause. These findings may have general implications for the genetic analysis of cause and effect in complex human diseases.

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