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New research database may reveal patterns in congenital heart defects

doctor uses stethoscope to monitor baby's chest

Up to 1.3 million Americans are currently living with congenital heart defects – which can cause a wide array of life-altering health problems – and nearly 100 new babies are born with heart defects every day in the U.S. alone. But what bothers Texas A&M Health Science Center researcher Dr. Vincent VanBuren even more is that 85 out of the 100 predicted defects have no known cause.

Most defects caused by chromosomal abnormalities or single genes have likely been identified, VanBuren says, making those that remain among the hardest to pin down. To aid in the search for answers, VanBuren’s team has developed a dataset library for future researchers, revealed this month in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, that sketches a lineup of likely suspects for these devastating abnormalities.

A team of researchers and coders spent four years collecting data from 239 experiments and writing software to track patterns in gene expression. The software identified clusters of genes likely to be working together in heart development. It also identified the proteins that are key in triggering swells of activity across genes.

Using VanBuren’s StarNet tool and the new overlap of genes shown in the data sets, researchers can now quickly access a library of data and well-informed hypotheses to begin filling in the gaps about how the heart is formed.