University of Iceland

Focused research on risk factors for diseases

Focused research on risk factors for diseases

“Part of our focused research policy is to understand what determines risk for diseases like stroke, coronary thrombosis, broken bones, and chronic lung diseases,” says Vilmundur Guðnason, Head Doctor at the Icelandic Heart Centre and Professor at the University of Iceland. Guðnason and his collaborators at the Heart Centre, the University and outside Iceland have received widespread attention for their research; their findings having been presented in many prestigious international science journals.

“At the Heart Centre we use two approaches; on the one hand traditional epidemiology and on the other hand genetic epidemiology. The traditional approach is based on processing data collected during the last 45 years and is still being collected in follow-up studies. This data is used to evaluate the risk factors for various diseases, with most emphasis on coronary and artery diseases,” says Guðnason and refers to the well-known Reykjavík Study which has been ongoing since 1967.

“In the genetic epidemiological approach the scientists of the Heart Centre work on mapping out human anatomy, taking into account the part the genes play, and because we have excellent data acquired through image analysis we are in a unique position where we can examine aspects that most scientists cannot,” Guðnason points out.

Extensive international collaboration
The Icelandic Heart Centre is involved in extensive international collaboration and doctoral students from many of the most respected universities in the world have come there for research, and doctoral students from the University of Iceland have worked under Guðnason’s supervision. “The Heart Centre has been active in forming international teams to address problems that would have been impossible to deal with within the framework of traditional epidemiology and genetic epidemiology,” says Guðnason. The collaboration enables different research groups to test their results on more than one population.

One of the findings of Guðnason and his colleagues is that preventive medication against coronary thrombosis is beneficial for older people. “We have also looked into the relationship between diabetes in adults and general mortality and the results well help to decide more specifically than before on treatment for diabetes. In genetic epidemiology we have participated in locating genes and gene areas in various chronic diseases, including coronary and artery diseases. We have, for example located genes that are active in causing stenosis in the vertebral arteries. Our discoveries are used to understand even better how genes function, alone or as groups, in different parts of the human anatomy,” Guðnason adds.

The results of this research have appeared in over a hundred articles in many of the most prestigious international scientific journals in the last three years; including Nature, Nature Genetics and the Lancet. “The studies are based on our own data, or part stem from the international work environment that we have helped to create” says Guðnason.

Mapping the development of chronic diseases
Guðnason says that the path they are on will be continued. “We have for example started exploring disease formation that are not yet observable diseases in tracts, such as the brain, heart and musculo-skeletal system with image analysis. This will enable us to map the development of chronic, long term diseases, for example by studying the descendants of those who already have the diseases,” says Guðnason.

“We must never forget that a large number of people survive trauma that entails unnecessary suffering and expensive treatment in the health care system. It is not unlikely that in the future expensive care in hospitals will not be on offer for everyone – which does not fit with our view of life – and therefore it is important to prevent an increase in the need for such treatment. This is why research of this kind is so important,” is Guðnason’s final comment.

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