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Scientists said Friday they have found a gene that causes most cases of a life-threatening kidney disorder that affects an estimated 500,000 or more Americans.

Experts said the discovery may eventually help scientists find treatments by helping them discover just how the flawed gene causes the inherited disorder, polycystic kidney disease. No cure is known.The disease makes hundreds of fluid-filled cysts grow in the kidney, sometimes to the size of eggs or larger. They can crowd out normal cells and make the kidney fail. The kidney can swell from the size of a fist to that of a football or larger.

A very rare form of the disease kills children, but the vast majority of cases are diagnosed in adults. About half of these affected adults develop potentially deadly kidney damage and require dialysis or a kidney transplant.

The newly found gene accounts for about 85 percent to 90 percent of cases of the adult form of the disease, said Peter Harris of the Medical Research Council Molecular Hematology Unit at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England. No gene has yet been identified for the rest of the cases, he said.

Harris and colleagues reported the finding in today's issue of the journal Cell with scientists in Wales and the Netherlands. Researchers studied about 300 patients from 300 families, he said.

Dr. Jared Grantham, chairman of the Polycystic Kidney Research Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., called the discovery "a great step forward."

The discovery is "very significant because it will allow researchers all over the world to focus on the gene to determine its function," said James Calvet, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The gene's discovery is also expected to help in diagnosing the disease early, before symptoms appear.