NUS researchers develop first 'gene map' that helps scientists better understand heart diseases

A cross-sectional view of the heart muscle.
A cross-sectional view of the heart muscle.PHOTO: NUS YONG LOO LIN SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

SINGAPORE - Researchers have developed a coherent map of genes in the heart and how they cause heart diseases, which could pave the way for new treatments for these illnesses.

Heart diseases are a complex set of diseases that is influenced by different genes, and it is challenging to understand which genes are responsible for a particular disease, say experts.

To help scientists unravel the complex web of genes and how they interact, researchers from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and the National University Hospital created what they said is the first map of the heart’s genes and the “switches” between them that control how the genes behave and contribute to heart diseases.

“Humans have the same number of genes as flies or worms — around 20,000,” said Professor Roger Foo from the university’s department of medicine, who led the research team. “What makes us more complex than a fly is that we have a lot more switches that turn genes on and off.”

Genes code for specific traits, and the switches are the non-coding portions of DNA between the genes.

Each gene has more than one switch and the switches may be far away from the genes that they control, making it tricky for scientists to match the switches to the genes.

The genetic heart map locates the genes and their switches so that scientists can eventually study them to create targeted treatments, such as gene therapy. 

“If we understand how these genes are controlled, then we may find ways to control heart failure itself... and identify new disease-causing genes,” added Prof Foo. 

Heart diseases, which eventually lead to heart failure, cause one-third of all deaths in Singapore. 

The researchers are part of the Cardiovascular Disease Translational Research Programme, one of nine new strategic research focus areas established at NUS Medicine in July. 

The new focus areas, which also include infectious diseases, healthy longevity and precision medicine, aim to create greater synergy and collaboration between basic and clinical scientists within the National University Health System, and to deliver research outcomes that address current clinical and national healthcare issues. 

“We hope that these nine programmes will deliver not just outstanding research, but over the period of the next five to 10 years, make some real impact on how we treat our patients and on the health of our population,” said Professor Chng Wee Joo, Vice-Dean of Research at NUS Medicine.

The development of the gene map was published as two companion publications in the journals Circulation Research and Circulation last month and this month respectively.  

 
 

The map took about five years to develop, and the researchers studied tissues from 36 healthy hearts and 34 failing hearts to map out the genes and switches.

Prof Foo said some scientists from Singapore and abroad have reached out to them to find out more about various genes from the map. 

He also noted that none of the drugs currently used in treating heart disease are targeting genes, and cardiovascular research is not as well funded compared to other health conditions.

“The place where a lot of gene targeting is happening, I feel, is in cancer. Looking at the progress that cancer treatment has seen in recent years with targeted therapy, this is our dream for cardiovascular disease also, now that we have mapped out all these specific processes,” he added. 

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