Interleukin-6 receptor (IL6R) - a protein involved in inflammation is a contributing factor in the development of heart disease, claims recent research published in Lancet.
The findings suggest that targeting the IL6R signalling pathway might therefore be an effective way of combatting heart disease.
Dr Adam Butterworth, who co-led the study from the University of Cambridge, said: "Typically, it can take many years to make safe and effective drugs to target new disease pathways. However, in this case, drugs have been previously developed due to this pathway's involvement in autoimmune disease. In fact, one such drug, Tocilizumab, is already used for treating arthritis, and might therefore be a viable drug for preventing heart disease."
The research, undertaken as part of the IL6R Genetics Consortium and Emerging Risk Factors Collaboration and funded by the British Heart Foundation and the Medical Research Council, analysed human genetic and biomarker data from more than 200,000 participants compiled from 82 previous studies. The research focused on the genetic variant Asp358Ala which is known to affect IL6R signalling pathways involved in the inflammatory response.
The researchers discovered that people who carry the 'Ala' form of the variant have a reduced risk of coronary heart disease (3.4% for each additional copy of Ala that is inherited). Although this genetic change in risk is small, the potential reduction in an individual's risk of heart disease provided by a drug could be much greater.
Dr Butterworth added: "Individuals carrying 358Ala had lower levels of markers of systemic inflammation, suggesting that this variant dampens the inflammatory response. As carriers of this variant also had a decreased risk of heart disease, this strongly indicates that IL6R pathways play a causal role in coronary heart disease."
Nearly 200,000 people die from cardiovascular disease in the UK every year, comprising one in three of all deaths.