PARIS ¿ Doctors and researchers in eight European countries have embarked on a study to identify the genes associated with ankylotic spondylarthritis, the second most common form of chronic inflammatory rheumatism after rheumatoid arthritis.

They are looking for families in which at least two members suffer from the disease. They will be asked to provide a blood sample that will be screened for genetic abnormalities that could be responsible for the onset of the disease.

After alerting rheumatologists to the planned campaign, the researchers are now appealing directly to spondylarthritis sufferers through posters displayed in public places, such as the Paris metro. People who have the disease, and who know of one or more other family members also afflicted, are invited to talk to their doctor or call a free phone number. More than 120 families have been enrolled already.

Ankylotic spondylarthritis, which afflicts 300,000 people in France and 1.5 million people throughout Europe, can cause extremely debilitating and often highly painful deformations in people aged 15 to 50. One gene associated with it, HLA B27, has already been identified, but it represents only 30 percent of the genetic composition of the disease, and several others are thought to play a role.

The project is being undertaken by EUROAS, a consortium set up specifically to conduct genetic and immunogenetic studies of ankylotic spondylarthritis and other spondylarthropathies. The eight countries involved are Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom. EUROAS has received a subsidy of Euro800,000 (US$825,000) from the European Union¿s Biomed 2 research program, and is also being supported by the German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim.

In France, the project is being promoted by the Paris public hospital authority (AP-HP) and coordinated by the rheumatology department of the Cochin hospital in Paris. The French Muscular Dystrophy Association (AFM) also is putting the know-how of its research laboratory, Ginithon, at the disposal of the EUROAS researchers, including its collection of nearly 40,000 DNA samples of 287 mostly rare diseases.

In addition, the campaign is being sponsored by two medical charities, one concerned with rheumatic diseases in general and the other with ankylotic spondylarthritis in particular, while the Paris public transit authority is providing the poster sites free of charge.