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Blood Cell Genes May Signal Heart Disease

Small study finds their levels correlate with cardiovascular trouble

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8 (HealthDay News) -- A test that measures the activity of genes in white blood cells might someday help doctors determine the proper treatment when someone complains of chest pain, researchers report.

The finding is interesting in part because of where it appears -- the first issue of a new American Heart Association journal, Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics.

The journal, which will appear every two months, is needed "because the completion of the Human Genome Project has meant a rapid acceleration of our knowledge of what genes do, and how they are related to various diseases," said Dr. Ramachandran S. Vasan, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine who is the journal's editor.

"We have found a set of genes in white blood cells whose level of expression correlates with obstructive coronary artery disease," said Steven Rosenberg, chief scientific officer of CardioDx, a California biotechnology company.

Those genes were identified in a study of 41 people undergoing catheterization, a procedure used to determine whether chest pains are caused by blockage of a heart artery. "The set of genes we were looking at were upregulated in the presence of obstructive coronary artery disease," Rosenberg said.

The goal is a blood test looking at activity of those genes that can help determine whether someone complaining of chest pain needs an artery-opening procedure, he said.

"We hope that the test we develop can distinguish people who are at very low risk from those who need intervention," Rosenberg added.

A multi-center trial of the test is underway, with results expected by next year, he said. "We're hoping to build on these results," he said. "We want to show that a signal in the expression of genes in peripheral blood cells tells of what's going on in the arteries."

"What is really exciting is that the expression of these genes is also related to the degree of stenosis, or blockage of the arteries," study author Dr. William E. Kraus, a member of the Duke University Heart Center, said in a news release from the university. "This means that a blood test based on these genes could tell us not only if someone has coronary artery disease but also how bad the blockage in their arteries really is."

Another report in the same issue of the journal described an association between a specific genetic location and the risk of abdominal aortic aneurysm, the abnormal ballooning and weakening of an artery in the abdomen.

"We're not trying to find a genetic test for aneurysm," said study author Dr. Matthew Bown, a lecturer in surgery at the University of Leicester in England. "We're trying to find out what is the cause of aneurysm, so we can find a better treatment."

In the study, the gene was found in 53 percent of 899 people with aneurysms and 47 percent of those without the condition, so "if you have the gene, it doesn't mean much for you as an individual," Bown said. "But genes close to this marker may be related to what causes aneurysm."

More information

Some questions about the genetics of heart disease are answered by Brigham and Women's Hospital.

SOURCES: Ramachandran S. Vasan, M.D., professor, medicine, Boston University School of Medicine; Steven Rosenberg, Ph.D, chief scientific officer, CardioDx, Palo Alto, Calif.; Matthew Bown, M.D., lecturer, surgery, University of Leicester, England; October 2008 Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics

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