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Clients in the News – Duke School of Medicine finds Stress Reaction Gene Linked to Death, Heart Attacks

A genetic trait known to make some people especially sensitive to stress also appears to be responsible for a 38 percent increased risk of heart attack or death in patients with heart disease, scientists at Duke Medicine report.

The finding outlines a new biological explanation for why many people are predisposed to cardiovascular disease and death, and suggests that behavior modification and drug therapies could reduce deaths and disability from heart attacks.

The study appears in the Dec. 18, 2013, issue of the journal PLOS ONE: (http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0082781). An open access copy of this article is freely available from Duke University for those who do not have access to the original in the journal (http://hdl.handle.net/10161/8293?).

“We’ve heard a lot about personalized medicine in cancer, but in cardiovascular disease we are not nearly as far along in finding the genetic variants that identify people at higher risk,” said senior author Redford B. Williams Jr., M.D. director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University School of Medicine. “Here we have a paradigm for the move toward personalized medicine in cardiovascular disease.”

Williams and colleagues built on previous work at Duke and elsewhere that identified a variation in a DNA sequence, known as a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), where one letter in the genetic code is swapped for another to change the gene’s function. The SNP the Duke team focused on occurs on the gene that makes a serotonin receptor, and causes a hyperactive reaction to stress.

In a study published last year, the researchers reported that men with this genetic variant had twice as much cortisol in their blood when exposed to stress, compared to men without the genetic variant. Known as a “stress hormone,” cortisol is produced in the adrenal gland to support the body’s biological response when reacting to a situation that causes negative emotions.

“It is known that cortisol has effects on the body’s metabolism, on inflammation and various other biological functions, that could play a role in increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease,” said lead author Beverly H. Brummett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke. “It has been shown that high cortisol levels are predictive of increased heart disease risk. So we wanted to examine this more closely.”

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