Genetics may play an even larger role in heart disease than first thought. 

In a new study, scientists have revealed how heart disease can be triggered by complex networks of genes that interact on a scale never known before.

The findings provide a whole new avenue for screening conditions such as coronary heart disease, Australia’s biggest killer.

Researchers have re-analysed a database on gene expression levels in hundreds of patients with coronary heart disease.

The study identified that up to 60 per cent of the risk associated with coronary heart disease may be explained by changes in the activity of hundreds of genes working together in networks across several organs in the body.

Co-author Professor Jason Kovacic from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute says experts now have a clear picture of how these networks of genes work together to cause heart disease.

“We have long suspected that the genes we inherit play a far larger role in our chances of developing conditions such as coronary heart disease, but until now we didn’t know just how these genes were working together,” says Professor Kovacic.

“It turns out that there are vast and complex networks of genes at work, which are signalling to one another and for the first time we now have a comprehensive map of how they are operating. This has never been accounted for until now and shines a whole new light on how and why we are predisposed to heart disease.

“This opens up the possibility of being able to far more accurately predict a person’s risk of heart disease, which would allow for earlier assessments and potentially better treatments.”

Coronary heart disease is a complex disease caused by thousands of genes that interact with other risk factors like smoking and obesity - which means screening for the condition has long been a difficult and unreliable process. 

The new findings could significantly change that.

“This research will be central to the development of ‘precision medicine’ - where patients are diagnosed and treated depending on how their unique genetics interact with risk factors in the environment,” says Professor Kovacic.

“Here, gene-regulatory networks may play a central role as an explanatory model to be used with the increasingly sophisticated molecular screening tools we have at our disposal today.

“We expect our findings will be translated into the clinical work of diagnosing and treating patients. Indeed, we are already working on this. We believe it’s highly likely that we will be able to map a patient’s gene networks and detect their disease risk.”