Reporter 461, 12 February 2001

Bus tour hits the road to map the heart of a nation

Leeds is at the forefront of new research into the genetics of coronary disease, with the largest ever grant awarded by the British Heart Foundation for a single study.

The £2.5 million grant is funding pioneering research at Leeds and Leicester to pinpoint the rogue genes which are contributing to heart disease.

A converted double decker bus has set off on a nationwide tour to recruit participants for the study.

On the road: Professor Alistair Hall is joined by Sir Jimmy Savile to launch the BHF bus tour

The campaign is seeking families across the UK who have a history of hereditary heart disease and who are prepared to give a small blood sample to the project.

The three-month bus tour reaches Leeds on March 12. Its arrival will coincide with the opening of the BHF Heart Centre at Leeds Infirmary by the charity’s director-general Major-General Leslie Busk.

More than £10m has been given to the University over the past year by the BHF and some £5m of this has gone into providing the infrastructure for cardiac research in the city, including an MR scanner dedicated to heart research, the refurbishment of clinical and research areas, key appointments and of major items of research equipment.

Key study: Dr Sam Muthusamy and Dr Sven Plein during a coronary argioplasty in the cath labs at Leeds General Infirmary

Researchers aim to identify families in which at least two members have had coronary artery disease before the age of 65. Participants can be aged over 65 but must have suffered from heart attack, hospital admission with angina, coronary balloon angioplasty or coronary bypass surgery before the age of 65.

A special DNA library is being set up to enable researchers to map genes across family groups in order to identify and isolate the problem genes. Researchers hope that a clearer understanding of the genetic factors of heart disease will help eradicate the condition in the future.

Looking for clues - PhD student Yvonne Cutts feeds transected human cells.

Professor Alistair Hall, joint leader of the family heart study project, said: "People who have at least one close family member with early coronary heart disease are four times more likely to develop similar problems themselves. The study is giving people who have suffered premature heart disease the chance to make a difference, not just to the future generations of their own families, but also of others both in this country and throughout the world." Professor Sir Charles George, medical director of the BHF said: "We are delighted to be marking our 40th anniversary with the largest grant the BHF has ever awarded for a single study. Our commitment to fighting the UK’s biggest killer has never been stronger."

A pilot study looking at the feasibility of the research started in 1997 at the University of Leeds and in the Midlands. Thanks to BHF funding, the study is now being extended to include volunteer families from across the UK.

In search of the light - the agarose-gel electrophoresis of DNA samples from heart patients

BHF senior lecturer Dr Anthony Balmforth, who leads the laboratory aspects of the research, said that the study was using the latest techniques to create a gene map. "The maps of brothers and sisters will then be compared to discover the areas that are common in all these patients and thus potentially contain genes that may cause heart disease. The eventual identification of these genes will lead to new ways to both prevent and treat heart disease."

As well as the joint project with Leicester, researchers at Leeds are also working on the genetic risk of acuter coronary events (GRACE), looking at additional factors in hereditary heart disease. They hope results from this study, along with those from the family heart project, will help pinpoint the triggers of heart disease.

BHF Professor of Cardiology Stephen Ball commented that heart disease occurring before the age of 65 appeared to cluster within families. For many years it was believed that this might be due to shared risk factors such as poor diet and smoking. However, there was now clear evidence that the genes that we inherit can cause us to have a heart attack, especially if we also have habits such as smoking and a poor diet. Importantly, he added, there is a lot that can be done to prevent heart disease for individuals born into such a family. The BHF says that although genes define our identity and essentially cannot be changed, the effects of abnormal genes can nevertheless often be limited. Regular exercise is recommended, along with a healthy diet including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Fried food should be avoided as well as smoking and excessive drinking.

see also the British Heart Foundation factsheet or the press release

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