While all the studies looked at the same genes, they did not always look for the same variants of those genes, Abecasis said. "So, we had to ask, are they really telling us something consistent? The method we used was that, we can find different little stretches of DNA that are shared between people and find relationships between those stretches."
The information has several possible applications, Kathiresan said. "We might use this genetic information to identify people at an earlier age, in their 30s or 40s, who are destined to develop high cholesterol levels and eventually heart disease," he said.
New light will also be shed on the metabolism of blood fats such as LDL cholesterol, the "bad" kind that forms artery-blocking plaques, Kathiresan said. And aside from basic biological knowledge, the discovery could lead to new drug treatments to prevent artery blockage.
"Time will tell whether any of the 11 new locations will end up being as good a drug target as HMGCR," he said.
The 30 genes that have so far been identified are believed to account for about 20 percent of the variations in individual blood levels of cholesterol and other fats. Even larger studies of people in different ethnic groups are needed to find other genetic factors, and their overall contribution to cardiovascular risk.
"We are currently designing studies to test whether individuals inheriting several of these lipid risk genes really are at higher risk for heart attack and whether they are more likely to benefit from cholesterol-lowering treatments like statins," Kathiresan said.
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