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Washington University Wins $8M to Study Genetics, Environmental Factors in Cardio Disease

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A research team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis plans to use an $8 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to conduct a large-scale analysis of genetic and lifestyle data from multi-ethnic cohorts, WUSTL said on Monday.

The scientists plan to examine data from more than 30 studies, including genomic information, common cardiovascular measures, and a range of lifestyle factors, to try to identify interactions between genetics and lifestyle that impact cardiovascular disease risk. The study will pull together data from more than 300,000 subjects of European, African, Hispanic, and Asian descent, and will be large and inclusive enough to provide "a broad view" of how genetic and lifestyle interactions play out in different ethnic groups.

WUSTL Professor Dabeeru Rao, principal investigator on the grant, said in a statement that the project is "unprecedented in many ways," particularly because it is much larger than other studies of genetic and lifestyle interactions and cardiovascular diseases.

"We have compelling preliminary data that highlight the potential of these investigations," Rao said. "We found, for example, several novel genes associated with high blood pressure that were not previously known until the interactions with alcohol consumption or education were brought in."

The researchers hope the study will have an impact on clinical practice for treating cardiovascular diseases, particularly by identifying underlying biological pathways and incorporating that information with lifestyle or pharmacologic interventions that could improve patients' disease risk.

In recent years, genome-wide association studies have identified hundreds of common genetic variants associated with traits related to cardiovascular disease, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but most of these variants have only small effects or modify risk only slightly and can only account for a small proportion of variations within these traits, the authors said in their research proposal.

The heavy emphasis on identifying common variants, which may only have small effects, in past research has made it harder to discover new genes that have larger effects on disease traits, they said.

This study will be "the first systematic, well-powered, large consortium-level effort for systematically evaluating gene-lifestyle interactions," they added.

The investigators will examine data from 25 cohorts that include phenotype and lifestyle information, GWAS data, and information on rare variants generated via exome chip analysis. These cohorts will include nearly 91,000 European Americans, almost 35,000 African Americans, more than 13,000 Hispanic Americans, and roughly 12,400 Asians.

They will conduct replication studies based on the Global BP Genetics and Global Lipids Genetics Consortium, which together have an aggregate sample size of nearly 161,000.

WUSTL Professor Ingrid Borecki, also a PI on the project, said large, collaborative epidemiologic studies like this one offer a "nontraditional mode of scientific cooperation that continues to provide greater insight into the genetic architecture of cardiovascular disease than we have been able to achieve in the past."