Little scientific research has tackled the unsightly problem of varicose veins, those swollen, twisted veins that can be seen just under the surface of the skin. Mostly the disease gets brushed off as a purely cosmetic concern, which isn’t true. Now, in an attempt to better understand the biology of this disease and hopefully discover new treatments or preventions, a Stanford study has come up with some pretty important clues.
First among them, the taller you are the more likely you are to get varicose veins, which usually appear in the legs. For a release I wrote on a study appearing in Circulation, Nicholas Leeper, MD, one of the senior authors, told me: "Genes that predict a person’s height may be at the root of this link between height and varicose veins and may provide clues for treating the condition."
The study, the largest ever done on the genetics of varicose veins, included nearly half a million participants from the UK Biobank — a repository of genomic data for researchers. In addition to the link to tallness, study results showed a strong genetic correlation with deep vein thrombosis, which occurs when a blood clot forms in one or more of the deep veins in the body. As Leeper said in my story:
We confirmed that having had deep vein thrombosis in the past puts you at increased risk in the future. Recent research suggests that the converse appears to be true as well. Having varicose veins puts you at risk of these blood clots.
The study further confirmed that currently established risk factors — including being older, female, overweight or pregnant— are all associated with varicose veins. Other confirmed risk factors were surgery on the legs, family history, lack of movement, smoking and hormone therapy. In addition, the study also identified 30 genes linked to varicose vein disorder.
Medical student Alyssa Flores, one of the lead authors, talked with me about the importance of these discoveries:
The condition is incredibly prevalent but shockingly little is known about the biology. There are no medical therapies that can prevent it or reverse it once it’s there. Treatment is mainly limited to surgical procedures, such as laser treatment or vein stripping. We’re hoping that with this new information, we can create new therapies, as our study highlights several genes that may represent new translational targets.
Photo by Joe Nuxoll