Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the University of Heidelberg, Germany, have identified 20 genes that play an important role in maintaining cholesterol balance.
The researchers believe that the newly identified genes may help uncover the mechanisms that regulate cholesterol levels, and lead to new treatments for cholesterol-related diseases.
"This finding may open new avenues for designing targeted therapies, for example by looking for small molecules that could impact these genes," said Heiko Runz, whose group at the University Clinic Heidelberg carried out the research together with Rainer Pepperkok's lab at EMBL.
High levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream are a major risk factor for atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
During the study, the researchers deprived isolated human cells of cholesterol, and then looked at the whole genome to find the genes that react to changes in cholesterol levels by altering their expression.
With a microscope, they then observed what effect switching off different genes had both on cholesterol uptake and on the total amount of cholesterol inside cells.
Of the 20 genes the scientists identified as involved in regulating cholesterol levels and uptake, 12 were previously unknown.
The scientists are now trying to discover exactly how the novel genes regulate cholesterol levels inside cells, as well as looking at patients to determine whether these genes (or alterations in them) do constitute risk factors, and investigating if and how they could be useful drug targets.
The study appears in journal Cell Metabolism.