Heart Disease Research Round-Up: February 2018

February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women in the United States, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths in 2017.

But the good news is, new research continues to uncover heart disease risk factors and potential new treatments. In honor of American Heart Month, we’ve gathered some of the latest news in heart disease research.

A surprising new risk factor for heart attack and stroke

High cholesterol and high blood pressure are known to increase your heart attack risk. But most people who experience a stroke or a heart attack don’t have either of those risk factors. Now, scientists have discovered a new, very common risk factor in a surprising place: bone marrow.

Researchers found that a strange accumulation of mutated stem cells in bone marrow increases a person’s risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke in the next decade by 40 to 50%.

The mutations are developed rather than inherited, but scientists aren’t sure why yet. Exposure to toxins like cigarette smoke could be one factor. Simple bad luck may be another.

The mutation was discovered somewhat accidentally in the context of other genetics research conducted by research teams who, for the most part, weren’t even working on heart disease. Researchers found that a surprising number of people had a genetic mutation typically associated with leukemia – but didn’t have the disease.

It turns out that up to 20 percent of people in their 60s and 50 percent of people in their 80s have the mutation. Called clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential (CHIP), it leads mutated stem cells to accumulate in bone marrow.

As for the connection between CHIP and heart attack and stroke, scientists are not sure yet how it works, but inflammation may play a role.

In one study, researchers gave mice a bone marrow transplant that contained stem cells with a CHIP mutation. Mutated blood cells began collecting in the mice, and they started to develop inflamed plaques that are associated with heart attack risk.

Researchers haven’t developed a specific treatment for this risk factor yet, so while you can be genetically tested for it, these tests may not be covered by insurance. Currently, there aren’t any steps you can take to reduce your risk from CHIP specifically, but scientists hope it will help in the development of better preventive treatments in the future.

Smoking just one cigarette a day still increases heart attack risk

While it is well-known that smoking cigarettes increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, it was previously thought that cutting back on smoking would reduce your risk proportionally.

Instead, new research suggests that once-a-day smokers have a higher risk than you would logically expect compared with those who smoke a pack a day. A smoker who reduces from 20 cigarettes to one a day may expect that he is cutting his risk to 5%, when in fact the risk is closer to 46% for heart disease and 41% for stroke, comparatively.

While cutting back on smoking reduces lung cancer risk, reducing smoking rather than quitting completely doesn’t have the same impact on heart attack and stroke risk.

Rare disease research reveals potential new treatment

Research into a rare disease recently revealed a disease function that could help those living with more common heart diseases such as heart failure.

A group of molecules, called chondroitin sulfate, are normally found only in connective tissues such as cartilage. Researchers discovered that the group of molecules also accumulates and causes inflammation in the hearts of heart failure patients.

The discovery was made as part of research into the rare disease Mucopolysaccharidosis (MPS) Type VI, in which patients have a genetic mutation that leads to a systemic accumulation of those molecules. Patients develop multi-organ failure, including heart symptoms such as irregular heartbeats and enlarged heart muscles.

In the study, researchers also found that the same molecules accumulate in diseased hearts in general. They then tested an approved treatment for MPS VI on an animal model of heart failure and found that it treated the heart disease effectively.

The researchers hope their work will open a new path to an additional treatment for heart failure.

New heart disease treatments can’t move forward without volunteers. If you’re interested in taking part, start searching below.