Penn Medicine and CHOP Study: New Genetic Analysis Confirms Connection Between Cholesterol and Heart Disease

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Media Contact:Katie Delach | | 215-349-5964February 11, 2014

New research is adding to a growing body of evidence showing the effects that genetics, cholesterol and other lipids in the blood have on coronary heart disease (CHD). Previous research has shown elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDLc, commonly known as “bad” cholesterol) are known to cause heart disease, but the effects of other lipids such as high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDLc, or “good” cholesterol) and triglycerides (TG) have been less clear. In a new study, published online in the European Heart Journal, an international team led by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, used a novel genetics approach integrated with cardiovascular outcomes and lipid data taken from blood samples from study participants to target specific lipids in the blood. The approach allowed the team to rule out other behavioral or environmental factors that may contribute to heart disease. The results are lending support to existing evidence showing that levels of TG are likely associated with risk of heart disease, while elevated levels of HDLc alone do not provide protection against CHD.

“These results contribute to our current understanding of which blood lipids cause heart disease and which ones don’t,” said Michael Holmes, MD, PhD, research assistant professor of Surgery in the division of Transplant at Penn Medicine. “Knowing that LDLc and TG contribute to an increased CHD risk allows health care providers to better offer individualized treatment plans with drugs that specifically target those lipids.”

Results of the new study were gathered using a recently developed tool called Mendelian randomization (MR), which identifies genes responsible for particular diseases and analyzes genetic variations, while ruling out other behavioral or environmental variables that can be difficult to adjust for in study design. Using genetic risk scores, researchers analyzed genetic data from 62,199 participants in 12 previous studies. More than 12,000 of the participants were found to have experienced an event related to coronary heart disease (CHD).

After analyzing the genetic data, the results of the new study not only confirm that higher levels of LDLc are more likely to cause heart disease, but also show that high levels of TG also cause a higher risk of heart disease, a finding that has previously only been speculated upon. At the same time, there was little evidence to suggest that higher levels of HDLc provided protective effects against heart disease.

While the findings provide an important contribution to existing knowledge on blood lipid traits and risk of CHD, the authors suggest further studies using emerging technologies in the genomics arena are needed to precisely understand the role specific lipids and genetic predispositions play in a patient’s risk of CHD.

“It’s still not clear exactly what role HDLc plays in a patient’s risk of heart disease, or to what extent” said senior author Brendan Keating, PhD, research assistant professor of Pediatrics and Surgery at Penn Medicine and lead clinical data analyst in the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “This requires further testing with new methods like Mendelian randomizing that can account for behavioral or environmental factors and focus specifically on the effects of those cholesterol subtypes.”

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