A gene that may play a protective role in preventing heart disease has been identified by a research team at UCLA. Scientists have identified. The gene, called MeXis, acts within key cells inside clogged arteries to help remove excess cholesterol from blood vessels. The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine
In mice, the study found that MeXis controls the expression of a protein that pumps cholesterol out of cells in the artery wall.
MeXis is an example of a "selfish" gene, one that is presumed to have no function because it does not make a protein product. However, recent studies have suggested that these so-called "unhelpful" genes can actually perform important biological functions without making proteins and instead producing a special class of molecules called long non-coding RNAs, or lncRNAs.
In the study, researchers found that mice lacking MeXis had almost twice as many blockages in their blood vessels compared to mice with normal MeXis levels. In addition, boosting MeXis levels made cells more effective at removing excess cholesterol.
In the next phase of the study, researchers will further explore how MeXis affects the function of cells in the artery wall and will test various approaches to altering MeXis activity. The researchers are interested in finding out if MeXis could be targeted for therapy of cardiovascular disease.
"The idea that lncRNAs are directly involved in very common ailments such as plaque buildup within arteries offers new ways of thinking about how to treat and diagnose heart disease," said Dr. Tamer Sallam, the study's lead author. Sallam is an assistant professor in the department of medicine and co-director of UCLA Center for Cholesterol Management. "There is likely a good reason why genes that make RNAs rather than proteins exist. A key question for us moving forward is how they may be involved in health and disease."