Team leader Professor Stephen Harrap, Department of Physiology, says this is the first genetic study in the world to focus exclusively on heart attack and it will pave the way for new means of prevention and treatment.
"We knew that factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking predispose to heart attack but the challenge was to find the genes that tip the balance," he says.
"There has always been a gap in our knowledge of what causes heart attack and we can currently only attribute about half of heart attack cases to known risk factors. It is likely that the genes we are now researching underpin these mysterious mechanisms."
The discovery, published in the current edition of the international journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, involved testing the DNA of brothers and sisters who had experienced heart attacks.
"We used genetics maps to scan the chromosomes and looked for regions that were especially similar between the brothers and sisters with heart attack histories," he said.
"Our research found that regions on chromosomes two, three and 20 were linked with heart attack."
Professor Harrap said that the hunt is now on to pinpoint the exact genetic mutations and it is likely that new causes of heart attack will be revealed.
"We are now trying to discover exactly what these genes are doing so that we can learn how they affect heart disease and then develop new methods for prevention and treatment."