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

Smoking wreaks havoc on almost every organ in the body. It’s a well-known risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and it’s the culprit behind almost a third of all heart disease deaths.

But questions remain about this cardiovascular villain because the mechanisms by which it inflicts damage are unclear. George O’Connor, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the adult asthma program at Boston University Medical Campus, said smoking affects the chemical modification and function of genes – and some of these effects persist for years or can even be permanent.

O’Connor was awarded $500,000 to conduct research as part of the American Heart Association’s Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study, or CVGPS.

His team plans to find out how smoking affects genes, which could lead to preventive treatments to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. The researchers also hope to uncover why the increased risk of smoking-associated conditions such as heart disease and stroke declines soon after quitting, but persists for many years for other diseases.

CVGPS researchers use massive volumes of data from major studies, with the goal of speeding discovery of more personalized treatments and prevention for heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death worldwide.

Here’s more about the study, as described by O’Connor:

How will you determine how smoking can alter genes? By studying participants in the Framingham Heart Study, the nation’s largest and longest-running heart study, we will address how smoking affects the chemical modification and function of genes in blood cells, and how these effects change over time after you stop smoking.

We’ll use laboratory measurements of genes together with information on smoking history. In addition, by studying European ancestry participants in Framingham and African ancestry from another study, we will address the question of whether race influences the impact of smoking on genes.

Finally, we will combine data on smoking, genetic code variants, gene chemical modifications, gene function and cardiovascular disease to search for clues on how smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by affecting genes.

What do you hope to achieve with this study? Smoking is the most preventable cause of premature death in the United States. The goal is to identify molecular targets we can use to develop therapies to prevent tobacco-related diseases for smokers past and present.

Read about the other studies in this series.