A price of progress

Bill Snyder
Published: July, 2006

For nearly a decade, Scott M. Williams, Ph.D., has been traveling to Ghana twice a year to explore the genetic roots of heart disease in African-Americans.

Compared to Caucasians, African-Americans have a significantly greater risk of developing high blood pressure. It’s unclear whether they are more likely than whites to develop arterial thrombosis, the formation of blood clots that can trigger heart attacks and strokes.

Identifying genetic contributors to cardiovascular disease in African-Americans is difficult, in part because of the complex mix of genes they inherited from West African tribes, Europeans and Native Americans, says Williams, associate professor of Medicine, Pediatrics and Molecular Physiology & Biophysics at Vanderbilt.

To simplify the search for genetic factors that may contribute to thrombosis, Williams and his colleagues are comparing blood levels of two key clotting factors in populations that are relatively homogeneous, at least from a genetic standpoint: rural farmers and urban dwellers of Sunyani, in western Ghana; and residents of the Netherlands.

The researchers hope to identify genetic factors responsible for differences in the levels of clotting factors – and the incidence of thrombosis – in the two groups. “Then you can use the information from that to try to get a handle on the African-American population, which is much, much more complex,” he says.

Collaborators include Douglas Vaughan, M.D., and Nancy Brown, M.D., at Vanderbilt; Kwabena Adu Poku, Ph.D., MPH, at the University of Ghana; and Wiek van Gilst, Ph.D., at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

The study is relevant not only for African-Americans, Williams adds. As Ghana becomes more prosperous, heart disease is quickly becoming a major problem here as well.

View Related Article: One bucket at a time: The transformative impact of global health