A gene for heart disease

09 January 2009


Researchers this week have pinpointed a gene that may help predict whether someone is at risk from early onset coronary artery disease long before they know there might be a problem.

For years scientists have known that this devastating form of heart disease is passed on from generation to generation, but the culprit gene causing the disease has until now remained relatively unknown.

Earlier studies identified a link between the disease and a region of chromosome 7, a particular neuropeptide Y gene or NPY.

Now this latest study published this week in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics by a huge team of people led by Svati Shah and Elizabeth Hauser from Duke University Medical Center in the United States, has revealed six variations in this NPY gene that are inherited between generations and are strongly associated with disease.

DNA fragmentCoronary artery disease occurs when the arteries bringing blood to the heart become lined by a build-up of cholesterol, fat and other substances, a process known as atherosclerosis. This narrowing of the arteries can restrict blood flow to the heart and ultimately lead to a blockage and a heart attack. It's a disease that gets more likely as you get older but it does affect younger people, for example affecting around 10 to 15% of Americans.

What the Duke University researchers did to find out more about the genetics of early onset coronary artery disease was to identify which version of the gene is carried by members of nearly a thousand families with a history of the disease, and by a group of unrelated people who have had an angiogram at the Duke University Medical Centre since 2001.

They discovered a strong link between six versions of the gene and people who have had actual heart disease or a history of the disease in the family.

They also conducted experiments with laboratory mice, confirming that these versions of the NPY gene promote atherosclerosis.

This study has clearly taken us a step closer to understanding the complex factors that increase the chances of someone suffering from atherosclerosis and heart attacks, and it means that we could soon see a genetic test for young people to predict whether or not someone is likely to suffer from early onset coronary artery disease, and if so, they can take important steps in terms of diet and exercise to help combat the development of the condition, since it is not simply genetics that determines whether you will suffer from the disease but it is a lot about how you live your life.


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