On June 19th, an article in the New York Times titled, “In Single Gene, a Path to Fight Heart Attacks,” unintentionally highlighted the modern promise and the utter failure of our medical system, both at the same time. It describes the findings from two recent studies on the genetic causes of high triglycerides. Both of these studies were large, well-conducted, and published in a highly regarded journal with extensive press coverage. The NYT article was on the front page “above the fold”.
The findings of the two studies, utilizing the genetic analysis of almost 200,000 people, showed that there are four relatively rare genetic mutations on a gene coding for apolipoprotein C3 (APOC3) that are linked to low triglyceride levels. Although there is uncertainty regarding how triglycerides are involved in heart disease, it is quite clear that high triglycerides are associated with increased risk.
The important result from these studies is that people with the mutations had not only lower triglycerides, but also about a 40% lower risk of coronary heart disease.
Research of this type could never have been done 50 years ago. It embodies remarkable medical and technological advances of recent years. Further, this research is intellectually stimulating and obviously relevant to heart disease, our number one killer. I have no doubt scientists and clinicians directed the studies with an eye toward what they genuinely feel is in the public’s best interest.
And yet I am troubled.