1130-Feature-CVGPS-Simin Liu_Blog

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of stories explaining how the scientific research underway in the Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study can save and improve lives.

There’s not much mystery behind the relationship between your jeans and the foods you eat. But what about food’s impact on your genes?

Simin Liu, M.D., Sc.D., professor of epidemiology and medicine at Brown University and director of the Center for Global Cardiometabolic Health, was awarded $500,000 to investigate how what’s on your plate may interact with your genes to contribute to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, a condition that can lead to serious complications if not treated.

His team’s work is part of the American Heart Association’s Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study. Liu recently explained his research project to AHA News.

Why does this study matter? “The importance and impact of diet on cardiometabolic health — a measure of your risk for diabetes and heart disease — are well recognized, although how to identify the modern dietary strategies for disease prevention and treatment that would truly work for our ancient genomes remains uncertain.

We think that our genes don’t function alone, but rather operate under nutritional influence and within molecular networks. Different ethnicities, for example, may have different genetic makeups and dietary habits, and the way the genes interact may work in an ethnic-specific manner. Our project will examine African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Caucasian Americans who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative, Framingham Heart Study and Jackson Heart Study.”

Why is the gene network so important? “Think about the gene network as a social network. Among the people we interact with, there are some people who can more effectively influence others’ behaviors. We are trying to track the gene hubs that, when altered, would bring changes to a large number of other genes. The ‘influencers’ in the social network are just like those ‘gene hubs.’ And the ‘gene hubs’ will also react with other environmental factors such as the food we eat. Taken together, they may change our probability of developing diseases.

Our work has shown the importance of interaction between dietary magnesium intake (which helps maintain normal nerve and muscle function and keeps the heartbeat steady) and genes controlling magnesium transport in the body in affecting diabetes risk. Similarly, intake of whole grains and the subsequent glycemic load — the amount of carbohydrates a food contains — has been shown to interact with genes to affect diabetes risk.

Our prior work has shown that women who carried a mutated form of the gene TRMP6 need more dietary magnesium to lower the risk of diabetes.

We are interested in investigating the gene and diet factors that may illustrate how health guidance can become considerably more precise and personalized. We are striving for the general framework of ‘4P’ medicine: predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory.”

Until more is known about the interaction between food and genes, what can people do to lower their risk of heart disease? “Heart disease is a silent killer because there may be no obvious symptoms or pain. But some factors that may contribute to the development of heart disease are preventable, like engaging in regular physical activity and being mindful about your diet. It’s better to prevent it than cure it.”

Read about the other studies in this series.