New patient-partnered research project will study heart disease and diabetes risk in South Asian populations

The OurHealth study aims to increase representation of people of South Asian ancestry in cardiometabolic research.

logo of the OurHealth project

People of South Asian ancestry around the world have more than double the risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases like diabetes, heart attack, and stroke compared to other populations. Researchers still do not fully understand why, in part because people of South Asian descent are largely underrepresented in genomic and cardiometabolic research. 

Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Stanford School of Medicine, and Yale School of Medicine are looking to uncover the reasons for this heightened risk by launching OurHealth, a study that partners with patients to collect and analyze genetic, medical, and lifestyle data, such as diet and exercise patterns. The team aims to uncover how genetics and lifestyle affect cardiometabolic disease risk in South Asian populations and how to potentially decrease that risk, including through the development of new drugs and lifestyle modifications. 

“A previous study of ours showed that South Asians living in the United Kingdom had double the risk of developing heart disease despite their clinical predicted risk being the same as others around them. This result was striking and it inspired us to build a resource to understand the drivers of this risk,” said Amit Khera, co-principal investigator of OurHealth, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and vice president of genomic medicine at Verve Therapeutics. 

“We're hoping to investigate the central question of: what genetic, lifestyle, and clinical risk factors create such a high rate of cardiovascular disease in South Asians across the globe? From there, we hope to find certain modifiable risk factors that we can act upon immediately,” said Romit Bhattacharya, medical director of OurHealth, associate director of the Cardiac Lifestyle Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an associated scientist at Broad. 

To participate in the study, adults living in the United States and with self-identified ancestry in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka can easily enroll for free on the OurHealth website. Participants will answer questions about their background, lifestyle, and medical history. Some participants will receive a kit in the mail that they can use to send a saliva sample for DNA analysis. 

Participants will be updated as the study progresses on how their contributions are enabling new discoveries. They will also have the opportunity to inform the researchers on whether their health status changes over time. 

This study will recruit participants through community organizations, social media, and by word-of-mouth. The OurHealth researchers hope that this grassroots recruiting effort will help them fulfill another important goal of the project: to raise awareness in South Asian communities about their increased risk of cardiovascular disease. 

“Once I started talking about this initiative, people around me said: ‘my father had a heart attack, or my brother had a heart attack at a young age, and I didn't even suspect that they were at risk.’ And so the community intuitively knows that the risk is there, but they haven't seen data in part because the data are so rare,” said Bhattacharya. 

In the pilot phase of the project, the OurHealth team will work with Broad’s Genomics Platform to sequence the DNA, including the protein-coding portion of the genome and the non-coding regions, using a cost-effective sequencing approach recently developed by the Platform called the Blended Genome-Exome technology. 

They will use the data they collect to create a reference, anonymized dataset that they will share with other scientists to drive more research. Most known genetic variants linked to cardiometabolic risk have been discovered using data from people of European ancestry. People of South Asian ancestry constitute less than two percent of participants in genomic studies. The researchers hope that the resource they are building will help scientists find additional genetic variants associated with risk in South Asian and other communities.

“We hope that OurHealth data will lead to discoveries in many different areas and will establish new clinical trials or lifestyle modifications that will lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke,” said Whitney Hornsby, the operations director of OurHealth.

“Now, 1 in 4 individuals across the world are of South Asian ancestry and an increased cardiometabolic disease risk is present across the diaspora. However, the infrastructure to study the mechanisms that contribute to this risk has been notably sparse, which is a major factor in this glaring knowledge gap. We are eager to take a patient-partnered approach and combine it with the extensive expertise of several collaborators across the scientific community to address a major health disparity for South Asians,” said Pradeep Natarajan, co-principal investigator of OurHealth, director of Preventive Cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an associate member at Broad. 

The OurHealth study is structured similarly to Count Me In, a project founded by the Broad, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the Emerson Collective, which gives people who live with cancer a way to directly impact cancer research through sharing their experiences with cancer, medical records, and genetic data. OurHealth uses a similar online platform that Count Me In uses, which was developed by the Broad’s Data Sciences Platform.

The OurHealth team includes advisors from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Flagship Pioneering, University of California San Francisco, Duke University, Google Ventures, and Verve Therapeutics.