Whether we read about it in the news or hear it from our doctor, when we think about the causes of heart disease it’s usually some combination of inheriting bad genes from our parents and making poor life style choices like smoking or eating a diet high in fat and cholesterol. But in a fascinating research published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists show evidence that in some people, heart disease may develop much in the same way that a blood cancer does; that is, through a gradual, lifetime accumulation of mutations in hematopoietic cells, or blood stem cells.
This surprising discovery began as a project, published in 2014, aimed at early detection of blood cancers in the general population. This earlier study focused on the line of evidence that cells don’t become cancerous overnight but rather progress slowly as we age. So, in the case of a blood cancer, or leukemia, a blood stem cell can acquire a mutation that transforms the cell into a pre-cancerous state. When that stem cell multiplies it creates “clones” of the blood stem cell that had the cancer-initiating mutation. It’s only after additional genetic insults that these stem cells become full blown cancers.
The research team, composed of scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, examined DNA sequences from blood samples of over 17,000 people who didn’t have blood cancer. They analyzed these samples, specifically looking at 160 genes that are often mutated in blood cancer. The results from the 2014 study showed that mutations in these genes in people 40 years and under were few and far between. Interestingly, the frequency noticeably increased in older folks with those 10% over 70 years of age carrying the mutations.
Most of these so-called “clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential”, or CHIP, mutations occurred in three genes called DNMT3A, TET2, and ASXL1. While these mutations were indeed associated with a 10-fold higher risk of blood cancer, the team also saw an unexpected correlation: people with these mutations had a 40% higher overall risk of dying due to other causes compared to those who did not carry the mutations. They pinpointed heart disease as one primary cause of the increased mortality risk.
The current follow-up study not only sought to confirm this correlation between the mutations and heart disease but also show the mutations cause the increased risk. This time around, the team looked for the mutations in a group of four different populations totaling over 8000 people. Again, they saw a correlation between the mutations and the risk of heart disease or a heart attack later in life. One of the team leads, Dr. Sekar Kathiresan from the Broad Institute, talked about his team’s reaction to these results in a Time Magazine interview:
“We were fully expecting not to find anything here. But the odds of having an early heart attack are four-fold higher among younger people with CHIP mutations.”
To show a causal link, they turned to mouse studies. They collected bone marrow stem cells from mice engineered to lack Tet2, one of the three genes that when mutated had been associated with increased risk of heart disease. The bone marrow cells were then transplanted into mice which are prone to have increased blood cholesterol and symptoms of heart disease. The presence of these cells that lacked Tet2 led to increased hardening of major arteries – a precursor to clogged blood vessels, heart disease and heart attacks – compared to mice that received normal bone marrow cells.
Though more work remains, Kathiresan thinks these current results offer some tantalizing therapeutic possibilities:
“This is a totally different type of risk factor than hypertension or hypercholestserolemia [high blood cholesterol] or smoking. And since it’s a totally different risk factor that works through a different mechanism, it may lead to new treatment opportunities very different from the ones we have for heart disease at present.”