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Scientists Uncover Genetic Risks For Stroke

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Someone in America dies of a stroke about every three minutes. Experts know relatively little about why people suffer these "brain attacks." A study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that millions of Americans carry a gene that makes them more likely to suffer a stroke.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Somebody in America dies of a stroke about every three minutes. But experts are just beginning, in relative terms, to learn why people suffer these so-called brain attacks. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that millions of Americans carry a gene that makes them more likely to suffer a stroke.

NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX: Doctors have always known that strokes run in families but they've never known which genes are responsible, says Eric Boerwinkle of the University of Texas in Houston.

Dr. ERIC BOERWINKLE (University of Texas, Houston): This is the first study to identify a gene region that's contributing to common stroke in the population at large.

KNOX: Boerwinkle was one of nearly four-dozen researchers who looked at the entire genetic makeup of more than 20,000 people. Comparing those who had strokes with those who didn't led the researchers to a small piece of Chromosome-12. Those who had strokes had two distinct genetic markers on this chromosome. They were close to a gene that helps repair nerve cells.

Dr. Walter Koroshetz of the National Institutes of Health says the new evidence is significant.

Dr. WALTER KOROSHETZ (National Institutes of Health): Well, you know, people always ask why did I have this stroke? And so we say, well, it could be your genetics, but we haven't had any proof of that.

KNOX: The new study suggests genes contribute to a lot of strokes. One in five white Americans carries the newfound genetic markers and one in ten African-Americans. These people have a 30 to 40 percent higher risk of stroke. Experts hope the research will lead to understanding of why strokes occur and then to drugs to prevent strokes.

But Corachets says right now drug companies don't seem at all interested in stroke, even thought it's the nation's third leading cause of death.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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