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Researchers find 535 new gene regions that influence blood pressure

By Allen Cone
Researchers find 535 new gene regions that influence blood pressure
Researchers found 535 new gene regions that influence people's blood pressure in a study involving 1 million people in Britain. Photo by agilemktg1/Flickr

Sept. 17 (UPI) -- In a study involving 1 million people in Britain, researchers found 535 new gene regions that influence people's blood pressure.

Almost a third of the estimated heritability for blood pressure has been identified, researchers report, including a tripling from those previously known. The research, led by scientists at the Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London, was published Monday in Nature Genetics.

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Genes play a role in blood pressure beyond blood vessels, including in the adrenal glands above the kidney and in body fat.

Blood pressure is a major risk for stroke and heart disease, which is influenced by lifestyle factors that include obesity, smoking, alcohol and high salt intake.

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"Unfortunately some people simply draw the genetic short straw and must work harder to stay healthy," Dr. Jeremy Pearson, associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said in a press release.

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Yet, the genetic architecture of blood pressure had not previously been well understood.

"This is the most major advance in blood pressure genetics to date," said Dr. Mark Caulfield, director of National Institute for Health Research's Barts Biomedical Research Center. "This provides us with many new insights into how our bodies regulate blood pressure, and has revealed several new opportunities for future drug development."

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Based upon these findings, a person's genetic risk score for high blood pressure in later life can be calculated. Using this "precision medicine approach," Caulfield said doctors can target lifestyle interventions that are specific for each patient.

For those with a high genetic risk, losing weight, reducing alcohol consumption or increasing physical activity may be appropriate, he said. And patients can be divided into groups based on their risk of disease, potentially allowing for even more specific care.

"By identifying those patients who have the greatest underlying risk, we may be able to help them to change lifestyle factors which make them more likely to develop disease, as well as enabling doctors to provide them with targeted treatments earlier, reducing the burden of disease on the health service and increasing people's quality of life," said Dr. Paul Elliott, a researcher at Imperial College London.

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The analysis of 1 million people included almost 500,000 from the UK Biobank cohort.

When comparing the group with the highest genetic risk of high blood pressure with those in the lowest risk group, the researchers found that all the genetic variants were associated with around a 13 mm Hg higher blood pressure, 3.34 times the odds for increased risk of hypertension and 1.52 times the odds for increased risk of poor cardiovascular outcomes.

The researchers believe some drugs prescribed for other diseases could be repurposed for treating hypertension. One newly discovered gene is targeted by the type 2 diabetes drug canagliflozin.

Some of the new blood pressure genes also were already known to be associated with other diseases. The APOE gene, for example, is well known for its association with coronary artery disease and Alzheimer's disease.

"Knowing which genes cause high blood pressure may help us to spot the people who are at risk, before the damage is done," Pearson said. "Those at risk can be treated -- either with medication or lifestyle changes -- potentially preventing thousands of heart attacks and strokes every year."

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