Researchers for the first time have found a genetic link to erectile dysfunction in men.
In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, study researcher Hunter Wessells, from the University of Washington School of Medicine, and colleagues found that variants of a single site on Chromosome 6 were linked to a significantly increased risk of developing erectile dysfunction.
Earlier studies involving twins have shown that at least a third of the risk for erectile dysfunction is heritable but until now, researchers have not identified a site in the genome that confers this risk.
Researchers of the new study, which analyzed the complete genomes of more than 36,000 American and 222,000 British men, picked out a single area, known as locus, in the DNA that interacts with a gene called SIM1 that correlated with erectile dysfunction in participants of the study.
The SIM1 gene plays a role in regulating body weight and in a pathway that produces two hormones that stimulate erections. Mutations in the nearby locus change how this gene works in the body, which the researchers said potentially leads to erectile dysfunction.
After controlling for other common factors such as body weight, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and smoking, the researchers found that the genetic factor remained relevant in risk for erectile dysfunction.
There are different levels of severity for the condition but Wessells and colleagues found that the SIM1 gene appears to impact them all the same. The gene appeared to have the strongest effects in men between 50- and 59-years-old.
The researchers said that the findings may have implications in treating erectile dysfunction particularly in those who do not respond to currently available treatments or those who experience side effects that prompt them to discontinue treatment.
“This study points to a new research direction for erectile dysfunction that could help us identify other key genetic variants that trigger the disease and lead to investigations to better understand the precise mechanisms by which they operate,” Wessells said in a statement released by the University of Washington School of Medicine.
The researchers did not involve women in the study but future research may also look at the effects of the SIM1 gene in females. While women do not suffer from erectile dysfunction, the hormones that the gene is involved with also play a role in female sexual function, which could mean it could also impact sexual arousal in women.
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