Breakthrough study identifies 535 genes that influence blood pressure

Friday, September 28, 2018

Researchers have newly identified more than 500 genetic regions that influence people’s blood pressure in the largest global genetic study of blood pressure to date.

The findings – from an international team including researchers from the University of Washington School of Public Health – more than triple the number of blood pressure genetic signals to over 1,000. The study, led by researchers from Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London, used DNA samples from more than one million people. Results were published Sept. 17 in Nature Genetics.

"This is the biggest ever study of blood pressure genetics,” said co-author Ken Rice, professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health. “These findings will be useful in two ways. First, we will learn more about the many mechanisms that lead to high blood pressure, which will help us control it with drugs. Second, for people who have many of these genetic risk factors, we’ll be able to provide an early warning of their risk of high blood pressure in later life.”

Researchers say this discovery will benefit people who have the greatest risk for high blood pressure, because they have the most to gain from interventions such as losing weight or increasing exercise.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease and was responsible for an estimated 7.8 million deaths worldwide in 2015. Lifestyle risk factors include being overweight or obese, using tobacco, drinking too much alcohol and having high salt intake. High blood pressure is also heritable through genetics.

The team found that some of the newly identified blood pressure genes were already known to be associated with other diseases, suggesting that drugs prescribed for those diseases could be repurposed for treating hypertension. For example, one of the newly discovered gene regions is targeted by the type 2 diabetes drug canagliflozin. Repurposing drugs already known to be safe could be an efficient and cost effective way to treat patients who show resistance or intolerance to current therapies.

“We need to do large studies like this because, although there are many genetic risk factors for blood pressure, they all have small effects that small studies cannot identify reliably,” Rice said.

According to co-author Bruce Psaty, "These large genetic studies have transformed the way we do genetic epidemiology. Large-scale collaborative efforts such as this one provide the reliable and reproducible results that advance the field."

Psaty is professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health and general internal medicine at the UW School of Medicine. He is also co-director of the UW’s Cardiovascular Health Research Unit (CHRU). Joshua Bis, a graduate of the UW School of Public Health who is now a research scientist in the CHRU, was also a co-author.