Genetic link to high cholesterol found

LONDON (Reuters) - A British team has found a new genetic link with high cholesterol and said the finding could lead to better screening and new drugs for the condition, which raises the risk of heart disease.

A U.S. heart patient is prepared for a two-hour surgery at Bangkok Heart Hospital in Bangkok December 19, 2005. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

The researchers showed that people with the common DNA sequence were likely to have higher levels of the so-called bad cholesterol responsible for increased risk of heart disease, Patricia Munroe, who led the study, said on Thursday.

“People knew this genetic marker was associated with a higher risk of heart disease, and the new findings show why -- it is associated with high cholesterol,” said Munroe, a geneticist at the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

The researchers published their findings in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death. It is caused by fatty deposits that harden and block arteries, high blood pressure which damages blood vessels, and other factors.

In their study, the researchers analyzed a database with genetic information on 2,000 men and women with high blood pressure and then screened for 25 common measurements used to gauge the risk of heart disease. These included cholesterol, sodium and glucose, or blood sugar, levels.

The team also compared their results with an even larger genetic database of 3,000 people and found the genetic change was also associated with low density lipoprotein cholesterol, known as LDL or “bad cholesterol.”

“We already knew high cholesterol was bad,” Munroe said in a telephone interview. “What our paper is showing is another gene related to bad cholesterol, and in this case it is directly related to coronary heart disease.”

The researchers located the gene on chromosome 1 and concluded one of two possible genes is the culprit. People have 23 chromosomes, a genetic warehouse for DNA in the cells.

The next step, which Munroe said would not take long, is nailing down the precise gene. This knowledge could help better predict heart disease risk and give pharmaceutical companies other targets for lucrative drugs to lower cholesterol.

Statins, anti-cholesterol drugs which lower the risk of heart attack and stroke, are the world’s top-selling drugs, pulling in billions of dollars for their makers.

“This genetic marker (for bad cholesterol) wasn’t known but the pharmaceutical industry will clearly be interested in it,” Munroe said.

Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Maggie Fox and Jon Boyle