Editor’s note: This is one in a series of Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study Discovery grants awarded by the American Heart Association to speed personalized treatments and prevention for heart disease.

A Texas researcher wants to understand if a person’s genetics or cholesterol levels can predict how well their blood removes cholesterol from the arteries.

Cholesterol is a big contributor to plaque buildup, which can cause heart attacks and strokes, the world’s two leading causes of death.

Removing cholesterol from arteries can protect people from heart attacks and strokes, said Anand Rohatgi, M.D., an associate professor in cardiology and internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. But “we still don’t understand what factors play a role in determining how good or bad this ability is from person to person,” he said.

If we can identify these factors, perhaps we can develop therapies that improve this ability to remove cholesterol from arteries and reduce the burden of heart disease.”

Rohatgi is among 10 researchers each recently awarded $160,000 to study new ways to individualize the treatment and prevention of heart disease. The grants, awarded by the American Heart Association with funding from AstraZeneca, probe three areas: heart failure, “good” HDL cholesterol and predicting cardiovascular disease.

Plaque can spend years building up inside the walls of blood vessels. It can become calcified and hard. It may rupture, allowing a clot to block the flow of blood to the heart or brain.

Because the body has a built-in system to keep the arteries clean, Rohatgi wants to better understand how that system works to potentially exploit it for the purposes of heart attack and stroke prevention.

“No one has yet been able to directly improve this ability to remove cholesterol from arteries, so there’s a chance we can find something that is actually going to make people’s lives better,” he said.

Some hardening of the arteries is normal with age. But a slow, progressive disease known as atherosclerosis may start in childhood. In some people the disease progresses rapidly in their 30s. In others, it doesn’t become dangerous until their 50s or 60s.

“Many of us think of heart disease as a problem of the elderly, but more and more it is affecting younger generations,” Rohatgi said. “If we can maintain health and recover from disease, we can be more productive and live a quality-filled and morbidity-free life.”

Read other stories in this series.