NZ volunteers contribute to anorexia research


Lying in a hospital bed due to anorexia, Isabella poked a hole in the IV drip feeding her because she was worried about the calorie intake.

"Upon reflection... I realise just how mentally sick I was," the 25-year-old says half a decade on.

Now still working on her recovery from the illness, the Auckland lawyer and new mum is trying to help others by volunteering for what will be the world's largest-ever study into which genes cause anorexia nervosa.

"Any research that looks to a genetic link goes a long way to being able to fix what's wrong with the situation, instead of just putting a band-aid on it, which is what they do currently," she told NZ Newswire.

Researchers from the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative are calling for 400 New Zealand volunteers who are living with or have recovered from anorexia to give blood before July to contribute to a pool of 13,000 people across the world.

More than 21,000 New Zealanders are estimated to have had anorexia nervosa at some point in their lives and about 180 have already signed up for the study.

Lead principal investigator Cynthia Bulik said other studies had found anorexia nervosa was 60 percent heritable, and the new research aimed to find the exact genes involved.

"Our goal is actually to collect 13,000 people… who have had anorexia nervosa at any time in their lives, and compare their genomes with the genomes of people who have never had an eating disorder, and find out where the differences lie. Those are the genes we'll hone in on -- probably hundreds of them -- that increase risk for anorexia."

Anorexia is more than just an eating disorder.

"The illness has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder, and deaths are typically due to the effects of starvation or suicide," Dr Bulik said.

"These alarming statistics warrant further understanding of the genetic influences underpinning this illness.

The call for volunteers also coincides with the release of a new study which has found strong genetic links between the illness and suicide, which accounts for 20 percent of anorexia-related deaths.

"It's not a choice -- it's a serious, biologically based psychiatric disorder," Dr Bulik said.

"One of things that is most disturbing is that it actually has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness."

A New Zealand researcher working on the project, Otago University professor Martin Kennedy, said scientists hoped the findings would pave the way for new treatments to target the illness.

"It will enable us to work towards a greater understanding of, and ultimately improved treatments for, the illness," he said.

But Isabella says while the study may take time to produce treatments, it will be worth it to help others.

"It's unlikely to help me in my lifetime, but it could help my daughter and her friends down the track," she said.

Dr Bulik said anorexia can strike anyone.

"All ages, all sexes, all socio-economic statuses, all races and ethnicities. The most important thing to know is this is not a passing fad -- it's not going to go away."

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline's 24-hour telephone counselling service on 0800 543 354 or Youthline on 800 376 633, by free text 234 or email

NZN / Newshub.