Experts to hunt down rogue genes for China's cholesterol problem

PHOTO: Experts to hunt down rogue genes for China's cholesterol problem

HONG KONG - Scientists in Hong Kong are embarking on a study to identify genes that are responsible for high cholesterol and heart disease in patients in southern China, which they hope will pave the way for the design of better drugs.

While cholesterol levels are coming under control in some Western countries due to drugs and healthier lifestyles, they are shooting ever higher in China, leading to higher incidence of heart disease and stroke.

By teasing out the culprit genes, experts will know if they match the rogue genes in Caucasian patients, for whom blood-thinning statins like Pfizer's Lipitor, AstraZeneca's Crestor and Merck & Co's Zocor were designed.

"If we find that the (culprit) genes (in Chinese patients) are different, it means what works for Western populations won't work for us. If we find that a different set of genes may be responsible for high cholesterol, we may need a different drug,"said principal investigator Tse Hung-fat in an interview.

While statins are now used everywhere, cardiology professor Tse and colleagues at the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Medicine said they do not work as well for patients in China.

"Statins only help reduce atherosclerosis in 20 to 30 percent of southern Chinese patients. That means 70 to 80 percent respond poorly. We only continue to use statins because they are good drugs, but the benefit may be low," said associate professor David Siu, a member of Tse's team.

Atherosclerosis is the thickening of artery walls due to the accumulation of cholesterol. Statins thin the blood and reduce formation of clots, that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

The study will involve more than 33,000 people in Hong Kong and China's southern Guangdong province. About 30,000 are from Guangdong who have had their health and blood cholesterol levels checked regularly in the last 5 to 8 years.

Using gene-analysis, they hope to find culprit gene variants in participants with high cholesterol and heart disease.

The team plans to test commonly-prescribed statins, like Zocor, Lipitor and Crestor, on liver and fat cells to see how well the drugs may work on people with variant genes.

"We will see which type of genetic profile is suited to which drug, this is personalised medicine," Siu added.