Heart attack risk raised by blocking natural immune response

26 February 2015        

Man holding lab slide

One of the body's natural responses to infection or injury is called inflammation and research we helped to fund has shown that blocking it could increase a person's heart attack risk.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by BHF Professor John Danesh, studied over a million people to assess the impact of blocking a part of the inflammation process. They did this by finding people who carried versions of a gene which caused natural blocking of this process.

The process can also be blocked by taking an anti-inflammatory drug called anakinra. Anakinra is prescribed to reduce high levels of inflammation that can occur in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Using genetics to better understand drugs

The people studied whose genes naturally dampen down inflammation were found to have a lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis but were likely to also have a 15 per cent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease and having a heart attack. The researchers found these people had raised levels of the 'bad' LDL cholesterol, suggesting this may be the cause of the increased risk of heart attack.

As well as providing more information about the impact of inflammation on heart health, the study has also provided us with more information about the potential long term impacts of taking drugs like anakinra that block this inflammatory process. There has been little research into the effects of anakinra on the heart and blood vessels due to the challenge of studying people over such a long period of time. By studying a natural process that mimics the drug, the researchers have been able to infer anakinra's possible effects.

What if I take anakinra?

Commenting on the results, our Medical Director, Professor Peter Weissberg, said: “It is important to remember that this is not a study of an anti-arthritis drug but a gene that can mimic its effects. The effects of a gene are lifelong, whereas a drug only affects a person while it is being taken.

“Nevertheless the study suggests that patients who are prescribed anakinra should have their cardiovascular risk factors carefully managed by their doctor.”

The research was also funded by the Medical Research Council, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, the European Research Council and the European Commission Framework Programme. It was published in the journal Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.

BHF Professor Danesh is leading groundbreaking research to help us better understand how our genes and the environment affect our heart and circulatory health. We can only fund this work with your support.