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Genetic test may reveal stroke risk at birth

DNA from blood or saliva may indicate those more likely to have a stroke at some point.

By Brian P. Dunleavy
Genetic test may reveal stroke risk at birth
A genetic test at birth may identify people at increased stroke risk, and allow them to develop health habits with that risk in mind. Photo by Herney Gómez/Pixabay

Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Can genetics help predict a person's risk for stroke at birth?

An international team of researchers thinks so. They have developed a genetic risk score based on findings from a simple blood or saliva test that, they say, is able to identify people at increased risk for ischemic stroke, one of the leading causes of disability and death worldwide.

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Researchers published their findings Friday in the journal Nature Communications.

"For common diseases, such as stroke, it is clear that genetics is not destiny," co-author Michael Inouye, of the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and University of Cambridge in the U.K., said in a statement. "However, each person does have their own innate risk for any particular disease. The challenge is now how we best incorporate this risk information into clinical practice so that the public can live healthier and longer."

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Worldwide, stroke ranks second on the list of causes of death and disability, and about 80 percent of strokes are "ischemic" -- meaning, they are caused by the blockage of an artery that supplies blood to the brain. A person's risk for ischemic stroke is determined by genetic and environmental factors, and is increased in those with high blood pressure or diabetes.

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For the new study, the researchers used a machine learning approach to integrate stroke-related genetic data from various sources into a single genetic risk score. Then they assessed the performance of this new risk score using the genetic data from more than 400,000 people enrolled in the UK Biobank, a collection of patient data available for use in research.

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The authors found that their new score outperformed rating systems tested previously, and had performed similarly to other well-known risk factors for stroke, such as smoking status or body mass index. Most notably, the new genetic risk score was significantly better than family history at predicting future ischemic stroke in that it was able to detect the roughly one in 400 individuals at three-fold increased risk for the condition.

According to the authors, genomic risk prediction for ischemic stroke, based on an individual's unique DNA sequence, has several advantages over established risk factors. Because it can be used to determine risk at birth, for example, it may allow initiation of preventive strategies before individuals develop conventional risk factors such as high blood pressure, said co-author Martin Dichgans, Director of the Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research at Ludwig-Maximilians University Hospital in Munich.

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The study results also suggest current clinical guidelines may not be effective for individuals at high genetic risk of stroke, and that these individuals may need more intensive interventions, the authors wrote.

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