Cretans don’t get heart disease despite high-fat diet due to good genes

Ian Johnston
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In the sun-kissed village of Anogia in northern Crete, people live long and healthy lives.

But this is not further evidence of the benefits of a Mediterranean diet as they enjoy diet rich in animal fat that would otherwise be expected to cause high levels of heart disease and premature death.

Now scientists have discovered the Cretan villagers' secret: they have a genetic variant that protects them against the harmful effects of ‘bad’ fats and ‘bad’ cholesterol.

It is thought this particular genetic make-up may be almost unique to the population of Crete's Mylopotamos area.

Previous genome sequencing of thousands of Europeans found just one copy of the variant in a single individual in Tuscany, Italy. A separate variant in the same gene has also been found to be associated with lower levels of bad fats in the Amish population in the United States.

This is obviously good news for people concerned, but it could also lead to new ways to treat cardiovascular disease in those not fortunate to be blessed by a similar genetic inheritance.

One of the researchers, Dr Eleftheria Zeggini, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire, told The Independent: “This gives us an increased understanding of the biological processes behind the regulation of cholesterol levels in the blood that we know are bad for you.

“We found these rare [gene] variants are associated with protection against cardiovascular disease. These variants are very rare.

“That could open up opportunities for new therapeutic targets and therefore new treatments.”

However she added this would be sometime “further down the line” with more research needed.

“This is the start of a long journey,” Dr Zeggini said.

And she was clear that this would not lead to a happy future when people could gorge themselves on a high-fat diet without any consequences.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “This is not a licence to eat and drink as much as one likes because cardiovascular disease is a combination of environmental and genetic factors.

“It’s less a matter of prevention and more of treatment.”

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers described how they had sequenced the entire genomes of 250 individuals and also studied another 3,200 people whose genetic information was known.

They found the people had a gene variant that was previously not known to protect against heart disease and related conditions.