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Not doomed by genetics

Monday 11 November 2019 11:54am

Anna Pilbrow image 2019
Dr Anna Pilbrow.

It is well-known that heart disease runs in families. The good news is our genetic inheritance does not mean we are doomed, even if we have already experienced a heart attack.

Geneticists at the Christchurch Heart Institute (CHI), a University of Otago Research Centre, have been studying a common DNA variant that increases your risk of a heart attack. Dr Anna Pilbrow and Professor Vicky Cameron are part of a large international collaboration, which has recently published two scientific papers in the journal Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine. The international collaboration, called The Genetics of Subsequent Coronary Heart Disease Consortium (GENIUS-CHD) collated data from 57 studies and nearly 200,000 people of European ancestry, including 3000 from NZ.

The CHI researchers were invited to participate in the GENIUS-CHD study based on their previous work showing that the DNA variant, while increasing your risk of having a heart attack, did not increase the risk of death following a heart attack. In other words, heart patients carrying the high risk DNA variant survived equally well as those who carry the low risk DNA form. These findings were based on a cohort of 2000 New Zealanders.

“The findings of the much larger international study have convincingly replicated the earlier research done here in Christchurch,” said Professor Cameron.

Meanwhile, other researchers have shown that medication and improving lifestyle reduced the likelihood of people with high genetic risk of heart disease dying of a heart attack. “In fact, when those with high genetic risk take their medications as prescribed by their doctor and maintain a healthy lifestyle, their chance of a heart attack is reduced to the same as those lucky enough to be born with low level genetic risk.”

According to Dr Pilbrow, “We cannot change our DNA but we are not doomed by it either. Even if we have a strong family history of heart disease, we can mitigate our heart disease risk by having a healthy lifestyle and taking our meds. Our lifestyle choices influence our heart health for better or worse.”

It has been a delight to contribute to the consortium and we are pleased that at least 10 further studies are emerging as a result,” Dr Pilbrow said. Although GENIUS-CHD is led out of the Netherlands and United Kingdom, the Christchurch team need send only anonymised summary data from the New Zealand patients to the consortium analysts for completion. No samples or individual data leaves our shores, but the combined data contributes to the international effort to understand the genetics of heart disease.