New App from Scripps Gauges Genetic Risk for Coronary Artery Disease

Illustration of red blood cells moving through clogged Artery
Credit: wildpixel/Getty Images

A new smartphone app can calculate users’ genetic risk for coronary artery disease (CAD), according to a study by a Scripps Research team. Plus, users at high risk sought out appropriate medication after using the app.

In the study, which appears in npj Digital Medicine this month, the researchers detailed how MyGeneRank inputs someone’s genetic data from 23andMe and outputs a CAD risk score. Of the 721 participants who provided complete information, those with high-risk scores were much more likely to start using statins or other cholesterol-lowering therapies, compared to those with low-risk scores.

“We saw about twice the rate of statin initiation in the high genetic risk group vs the low genetic risk group, which indicates that strategies like this could make a big contribution to public health—heart disease being the largest cause of death globally,” says study senior author Ali Torkamani, professor and director of Genomics and Genome Informatics at the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 18 million American adults have CAD, the most common form of heart disease, which features hardening and narrowing of arteries. More than 300,000 Americans die of heart attacks every year.

“We now have the opportunity to integrate a person’s genetics into their cardiovascular health assessment to help them better understand their individualized risk and empower them to make the necessary modifications—including the addition of statin therapy—to their risk factor optimization plans,” says first author Evan Muse, a cardiologist and lead for cardiovascular genomics at the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

The team developed free CAD-risk iPhone and Android apps. Users can link their existing 23andMe data and fill out consent forms and health-related surveys, including questions about the use of lipid-lowering drugs. The app then calculates and displays a risk score based on the latest recognized genetic risk factors for CAD. The app also followed up approximately a year later with questions on respondents’ current use of lipid-lowering medications.

The researchers promoted the apps at scientific conferences, conducted an advertising campaign on Facebook, and ultimately enrolled 3,800 eligible respondents, of whom 721 provided enough initial and follow-up information for the analysis.

The results were encouraging, according to the team. A key finding was that respondents who were not taking lipid lowering medication at the outset of the study, but were informed by the app that they had high gene-based risk scores for CAD, initiated lipid lowering therapy at more than twice the rate of those with low-risk scores.

At follow-up respondents in the high-risk category were about 1.4 times more likely to report use of a statin lipid-lowering drug, and about 4 times more likely to report use of a non-statin lipid-lowering drug, compared to those in the low-risk category. Respondents in the high-risk group also initiated lipid-lowering therapy much earlier, at age 52 on average, compared to 65 for the low-risk group.

“Even if someone finds out they have low genetic risk for CAD, knowing their score can help—for example if they also know they have high risk overall, that may suggest other non-genetic factors like lifestyle are contributing to their risk and that they should consider making changes,” Torkamani says.

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