London researchers discover 535 new blood pressure gene regions

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London researchers discover 535 new blood pressure gene regions

The discovery brings the total number of gene regions known to affect blood pressure to over 1,000, guiding scientists towards more personalised treatments

Researchers based at Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London have discovered new 535 gene regions, or loci – specific parts of genes – which are involved in blood pressure control. This more than trebles the number of known gene regions to over 1,000.  

The research involved more than one million participants, and includes 450,000 people from the UK Biobank project – where people have donated genetic samples and given permission to use their medical records so that scientists can find the genes involved in health and disease. 

The new findings were published this September in Nature Genetics. It marks huge progress in understanding the causes of high blood pressure, and with it, clues for future treatments to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Professor Mark Caulfield, Blood Pressure UK Trustee and leader on this project explained: ‘‘This is the most major advance in blood pressure genetics to date. We now know that there are over 1,000 genetic signals which influence our blood pressure. This provides us with many new insights into how our bodies regulate blood pressure, and has revealed several new opportunities for future drug development.”

Dr Helen Warren is Lecturer in Statistical Genetics at Queen Mary and researcher on the project. We interviewed Helen about the project in Summer 2017 for our magazine Positive Pressure. At that point the team had looked at 140,000 people from the UK Biobank and found over 200 relevant genes, and she explained why finding these blood pressure genes was so important:

“Discovering these new genes could lead to two key changes in how we treat and prevent high blood pressure. The first is that it could be possible to target drugs to these genes – either by developing new treatments for high blood pressure, or by selecting the best available treatment for each individual.

“The second is that we could develop a genetic test to identify those who have the highest genetic risk of developing high blood pressure. GPs and nurses would be able to better target those individuals, making sure they had the right lifestyle advice or medications.” 

Last year these goals were still a long way off, now, Helen explains how these new discoveries bring them closer to their goals. 

Identifying more gene regions has given us more clues about the causes of high blood pressure, as the gene regions have a role in the blood vessels, the adrenal glands which release hormones, and in body fat. Interestingly, some of the genes are already known to have a role in other health problems such as high cholesterol and heart disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

“This research is also helping us find targets for new drugs and to figure out which medicines that already exist could be used for high blood pressure. For example, one of the new genes is targeted by the type 2 diabetes drug canagliflozin. Using drugs which are already available is much quicker and cheaper than developing new ones, and means we could give doctors more options for treating high blood pressure in a short time. This could be a major turning point for those who have side effects from the treatments already available.” 

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of Blood Pressure UK, explains:Cutting down on salt and alcohol, looking after your weight and being active are all essential for blood pressure control. So even if you inherit genes which lead to heart disease and stroke, you can still do a lot to prevent them.

“Knowing who is more at risk will help health professionals target those individuals with lifestyle advice. Combined with developments in treatment based on these genes, this could save thousands of lives and save the NHS millions every year.” 

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