University of Georgia

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measuring blood pressure

Researchers at UGA have identified several new genes that influence how the body regulates blood pressure. This may help scientists develop novel blood pressure treatments or even allow them to tailor prevention strategies for hypertension based on individuals’ genes.

The researchers used an environmental marker—potassium—to pinpoint previously unknown areas within the human genome associated with blood pressure.

Clinical trials have shown that dietary potassium can reduce blood pressure. The UGA study tested different points of the human genome to see where the genetic sequence interacted with potassium and blood pressure.

This point of interaction acted as the “X” to mark the spot on the genetic sequence where genes regulate blood pressure. The study, published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics, is the first to use external factors to find new genes associated with blood pressure regulation.

“One of the major drawbacks of previous genetic studies of hypertension is that these studies did not explore the interactions between genes and environmental factors,” says Changwei Li, lead author and assistant professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at UGA’s College of Public Health.

“For example, some genes’ effect on blood pressure only manifests under certain environments,” he says. “If environmental factors are not taken into account, these genes will not be identified for hypertension.”

Working with collaborators from several universities and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Li gathered potassium and blood pressure measurements from 1,876 Chinese participants in the Genetic Epidemiology Network of Salt Sensitivity study, or GenSalt, and performed statistical tests to find points of interaction.

The analysis yielded six new genes significantly associated with the regulation of blood pressure in the body.

By dialing in on the specific genetic mechanisms that lead to disease, researchers can develop new therapies to treat complex, multifactor disorders such as high blood pressure. This approach may also contribute to the growing field of precision or personalized medicine.

“Findings from our study help to identify individuals who are particularly sensitive to dietary potassium as a way to reduce blood pressure, based on their genomic profiles,” Li says. “Subsequently, we could provide personalized suggestions to prevent disease based on their genotypes.”

The study offers robust evidence that this approach—known as gene-environment interaction analysis—is useful for identifying novel genes and revealing the mechanisms underlying blood pressure regulation or other body systems, Li says.

The gene-potassium interactions identified in this study were limited to Chinese participants. Future exploration for these loci and genes in a different population will show whether they have the same effect in other ethnic populations.

This story appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Research Magazine. The original press release is available at