Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs)—diseases that affect the heart and/or the blood vessels—are a leading cause of illness and death worldwide. In the United States, for example, the leading cause of death is coronary heart disease, a CVD in which narrowing of the heart's blood vessels by fatty deposits slows the blood supply to the heart and may eventually cause a heart attack (myocardial infarction, or MI); the third leading cause of death in the US is stroke, a CVD in which the brain's blood supply is interrupted. Environmental factors such as diet, physical activity, and smoking alter a person's risk of developing CVD. In addition, certain genetic variants (alterations in the DNA that forms the body's blueprint; DNA is packed into structures called chromosomes) alter the risk of developing CVD and are passed from parent to child. Thus, in CVD, as in most common diseases, both genetics and the environment play a role.
Why Was This Study Done?
Recent studies have identified several genetic variants that are associated with an increased risk of developing CVD. One of the most robust of these genetic associations is a cluster of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, differences in a single DNA building block) in a chromosomal region (locus) called 9p21. So far, this association has been mainly studied in European populations. Moreover, the interaction of this locus with environmental factors has not been extensively studied. A better understanding of how 9p21 variants affect CVD risk in people of different ethnicities and of the interaction between this locus and environmental factors could allow the development of targeted strategies for the prevention of CVD. In this study, the researchers investigate the association of 9p21 risk variants with CVD in people of different ethnicities and test for an interaction between this locus and environmental factors.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers assessed four 9p21 SNPs in people enrolled in the INTERHEART study, a global retrospective case-control study that investigated potential MI risk factors by comparing people who had had an acute non-fatal MI with similar people without heart disease. All four SNP risk variants increased the risk of MI by about a fifth. However, the effect of the SNPs on MI was influenced by the “prudent” diet pattern score of the INTERHEART participants, a score that includes fresh fruit and vegetable intake as recorded in food frequency questionnaires. That is, the risk of MI in people carrying SNP risk variants was influenced by their diet. The strongest interaction was seen with an SNP called rs2383206, but although rs2383206 carriers who ate a diet poor in fruits and vegetables had a higher risk of MI than people with a similar diet who did not carry this SNP, rs2383206 carriers and non-carriers who ate a fruit- and vegetable-rich diet had a comparable MI risk. Overall, the combination of the least “prudent” diet and two copies of the risk variant (human cells contain two complete sets of chromosomes) was associated with a two-fold increase in risk for MI in the INTERHEART study. Additionally, data collected in the FINRISK study, which characterized healthy individuals living in Finland at baseline and then followed them to see whether they developed CVD, revealed a similar interaction between diet and 9p21 SNPs.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that the risk of CVD conferred by chromosome 9p21 SNPs may be influenced by diet in multiple ethnic groups. Importantly, they suggest that the deleterious effect of 9p21 SNPs on CVD might be mitigated by consuming a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. The accuracy of these findings may be affected by recall bias in the INTERHEART study (that is, some people may not have remembered their diet accurately) and by the small number of CVD cases in the FINRISK study. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that gene–environment interactions are important drivers of CVD, and they raise the possibility that a sound diet can mediate the effects of 9p21 SNPs.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001106.