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Friday, 7 June, 2002, 00:08 GMT 01:08 UK
Gene for ear wax
Ear
There are different types of ear wax
Scientists have pinpointed a gene which controls production of ear wax.

They hope that the discovery will lead to ways to manipulate the development of the glands which produce the waxy substance.


Ear wax is a big problem - GPs spend considerable amounts of time syringing blocked ears

Dr Richard Coppin
There are two forms of human ear wax, wet and dry.

Wet ear wax is common in whites and African Americans, dry ear wax is common in Asians and native Americans.

Both types of wax are produced by the ceruminous apocrine glands in the ear.

However, dry ear wax is associated with glands that have not fully developed.

Rare case

The researchers from Nagasaki University School of Medicine in Japan became interested after being alerted to the case of a woman who had a very rare neurological disorder called paroxysmal kinesigenic choreoathetosis.

The condition meant that she suffered from uncontrollable twisting movements of her extremities.

Unusually for the Japanese population, the woman had wet ear wax - as did six other members of her family with the same condition.

After studying the family, the researchers found that the gene coding for ear wax was located on the same area as chromosome 16 as the gene responsible for paroxysmal kinesigenic choreoathetosis.

Lead researcher Dr Hiroaki Tomita told BBC News Online that a better understanding of the apocrine glands could potentially provide clues about the way breast cancer develops, since similar glands are found in the breast.

Sporadic problem

Wax is produced as a way of keeping the ear clean and unblocked. The wax migrates towards the outer part of the ear, carrying with it dirt and debris.

Professor George Browning, of the Institute of Hearing Research in Glasgow, said that the differences in ear wax production tended to be over-stated.

He said discovery of an ear wax gene, while interesting, was unlikely to have practical application.

He told BBC News Online: "Some people may be predisposed genetically to producing more ear wax than others, but in my experience it is not a problem that often runs in families, but more of a sporadic thing."

Professor Browning said ear wax problems were most often associated with people pushing it further into ears while attempting to remove it using cotton buds.

Dr Richard Coppin, a GP in Basingstoke, is undertaking research into the way patients with ear wax problems are treated in primary care.

He said: "Ear wax is a big problem. GPs spend considerable amounts of time syringing blocked ears.

"A proportion of people, for reasons that are not clear, experience a build-up of wax which makes it difficult to hear, and can cause discomfort."

The research is published in The Lancet medical journal.

See also:

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