Cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure or high lipid levels in the blood can create small injuries in arteries and veins. Researchers think that long-term damage after such injuries is greater if a patient has an aggressive inflammatory response at the site of the blood vessel injury. Now some researchers think they've found how variation in one particular gene can put women at a higher risk for that extreme response, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Doctor Ed Lammer, a researcher at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California, looked at data from a study of subjects who have been followed since 1971. "Muscatine, Iowa," he explains. "They have been tracked since high school, and they're now in their late 40s. The intent is to continue to keep track of these people through their whole lifetime."

The Muscatine study started by collecting blood and DNA samples from 11,000 subjects, mostly white. About 850 people are still participating in the study, 36 years later.

Lammer says they found about half the women in the group had a variant form of a gene called Leukotriene C 4 Synthase. "We found that some people inherit a version of this gene that gives them a more vigorous inflammatory response." Researchers have associated that response with a risk factor for developing asthma.

Lammer's study identified another risk factor. "We found early signs of coronary artery disease and stroke in women who have this particular form of this inflammatory-related gene." Carrying the gene made the women four times more likely to develop early coronary artery disease, even when the researchers controlled for other factors, such as smoking and obesity.

Lammer says, with this information, people could be tested for this genetic anomaly when they're young. "If you knew someone was predisposed to having high lipids or genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, you could intervene with medications at an earlier age, or recommended dietary interventions." Lammer says they found that only women were affected by the variations in this gene.

The study is published in a journal produced by the American Heart Association.