WEDNESDAY, May 5, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- A mutation in one gene could significantly raise your risk for a heart attack, a new Japanese study suggests.
The researchers found that a mutation in a gene called LGALS2, which produces a protein called galectin-2, was associated with an increased risk of heart attack. This knowledge could lead to the eventual development of medications that could suppress this defective protein and reduce the risk of heart attack, the researchers say.
"Decreased expression of galectin-2 might be protective against the risk of myocardial infarction [heart attack]. So, drugs that can reduce the function of galectin-2 can be therapeutic agents," said study co-author Dr. Toshihiro Tanaka, Laboratory Head at The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Tokyo.
Results of the study appear in a letter in the May 6 issue of Nature.
More than 1 million people have a heart attack every year in the United States, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. More than 500,000 Americans die from heart attacks annually, and about half of those die within the first hour of experiencing symptoms.
A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart becomes blocked because of clogged arteries.
According to the new study, inflammation is believed to play a role in the development of heart attack. In previous studies, researchers discovered that an inflammation-mediating molecule called lymphotoxin-alpha (LTA) was associated with a higher risk of heart attack.
For the new study, the Japanese researchers looked for proteins that interacted with LTA. They found that galectin-2 binds to LTA and increases susceptibility to heart disease.
To test their findings, the researchers compared blood samples from 600 people who had had a heart attack to 600 healthy people in a control group. Then they compared blood samples from another 2,302 people who had had a heart attack to another 2,038 "controls."
The researchers found galectin-2 was associated with a significantly higher risk of heart attack.
Tanaka added this is not "the" single gene that causes heart attacks, so even people who don't have it could still be at risk.
"Unlike monogenic diseases, including cystic fibrosis or Duchenne muscle dystrophy, in which case mutation equals disease-causing, the causes of [other] common diseases [such as heart disease] are a combination of environmental factors as well as several to many genetic factors," Tanaka said.
Dr. Stephen Siegel, a cardiologist at New York University Medical Center in New York City, said, "This study is helping to define the actual trigger of heart attacks."
Siegel likened inflammation to the trigger of a gun and said that while researchers know that pulling the trigger will "fire a bullet" and cause a heart attack, they don't know exactly how that process occurs. He said this new study is getting closer to the true cause, like looking at a firing pin on a gun.
"The more we learn, the more possibility we have of preventing this devastating disease," Siegel said.
In the meantime, Siegel recommended "taking care of the risk factors we do know about." That means controlling high blood pressure and high cholesterol, making exercise a regular part of life, eating a nutritious diet, and quitting smoking.
To get an idea of what your risk is for a heart attack, complete this risk assessment quiz from the American Heart Association. For information on ways you can prevent a heart attack, go to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.