Researcher working in lab with microscope

Research shows ‘bad’ genes are not destiny

Inherited risk for high cholesterol can be overcome with lifestyle changes and medication.

Dr. Robert Hegele has a name for the patients who come to his clinic with a family history of heart disease or stroke, or with genes that put them at risk for high cholesterol.

 Dr. Robert Hegele holding genetic model

Dr. Robert Hegele

He calls them “Energizer Bunnies” because they keep going and going. “These patients are living for decades; they’re watching their grandchildren grow up and having a good quality of life,” says the professor of medicine and biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario.

“People have this idea that if they have bad genes, it’s predestined and there’s nothing you can do,” he adds. On the contrary, he believes that a healthy lifestyle – and sometimes medications – can overcome most genetic flaws. And he should know, after almost 30 years of studying the genes that regulate the cholesterol that circulates through the blood and can end up blocking arteries, leading to heart attacks and strokes.

“What we’re finding is that for most patients, even patients who have had a heart attack or stroke, the genes are not destiny. In the right patient, cholesterol lowering medications together with diet and lifestyle, can prolong life by 15 or 20 years. We can bring their expected lifespan back to normal.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Hegele and other scientists are working to unlock the mysteries of the genes that increase risk. In 1986 he discovered that the gene controlling a protein called apo B increases a person’s risk of a heart attack. Now thanks in part to this work, apo B is among the blood tests your doctor can order to assess your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Another important discovery – there is no such thing as a single cholesterol gene. “In the last 25 years, we’ve learned cholesterol regulation is done by dozens or maybe 100 different genes,” Dr. Hegele says.

“Today, what we’re doing with our Heart and Stroke Foundation-funded research is to try to break down the DNA code to really learn what does family history mean, what is actually happening at the molecular level that explains why heart disease runs in families,” he says. “And a lot of what we’re learning about cholesterol is transferrable to other risk factors.”

He believes the drug treatments of tomorrow will come from a genetic understanding of the pathways that contribute to heart disease and stroke.

  • Family history can double your risk of heart disease and stroke. Know your risk.

3 Responses

  1. Linda Newman

    I am 69 yrs old. born in the middle of 5 girls, (in8 yrs) Our father had a sudden death from heart problems in 1966. He was only 46 years old. We were devastated as you can imagine. Our mother never remarried but has since passed away. I am wondering if you ever include a family in your research as ours would be great. We are all alive some more healthy than others, I think we are a great study all living within 1 hr of London and all with different lifestyles . Think about the possibilities.,and we’re free. Linda

    1. Sharon Hollingsworth

      Hi Linda,
      I am so sorry to learn of the untimely death of your Dad – it’s very hard to lose a parent at any time, but all the more so at such a young age. To answer your question, the Heart and Stroke Foundation does not actually conduct medical research. A vitally important of our mission is to provide funding for the best and brightest research teams from all parts of Canada who are looking for better ways of preventing and treating heart disease and stroke. But I suggest you mention your interest in your family being a participant in a research study to your healthcare provider. He or she may well have knowledge of ongoing work of this nature and be able to advise you on how to apply.

      Thanks very much for contacting us, Linda and for your interest in the Foundation’s blog. Hope you are having a good day!

      Sincerely, Sharon at the Heart and Stroke Foundation

  2. Totally agree. We are not born with the bad genes, but genes changes or triggered to express with our mood and living surroundings including food, air, and activities. And I also believes that there will be a day when drugs at genetic level can be developed.

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