That news comes from a study in the current issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases made the finding while doing HIV/AIDS research.
They did a detailed genetic analysis of more than 1,800 people and found that a genetic variant of the CX3CR1 receptor, called CX3CR1-M280, was associated with a significantly lower risk of heart disease. That held true even after the scientists adjusted for age, gender and negative risk factors such as high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and hypertension.
CX3R1 is a receptor molecule found on the surface of immune system cells.
"The genetic variation we studied has a positive and protective effect against atherosclerosis. This effect is similar in magnitude, though opposite in value, to known negative risk factors such as diabetes and smoking. In other words, as bad as the negative risk factors are bad, this factor is good," senior author Dr. Philip M. Murphy says in a news release.
"In addition, the study may explain part of the hereditary component of heart disease, establishing not only a genetic association but also giving evidence for a biological cause," Murphy says.
By identifying a connection between the CX3CR1 receptor and atherosclerosis, the scientists have pinpointed CX3CR1 as a potential target for drugs that block its action.
Here's where you can learn more about heart disease.