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Groundbreaking research into the mechanism of atherosclerotic plaques has recently been published, paving the way for new therapies for cardiovascular disease.

As global leaders in atherosclerosis research, Dr Ashish Misra (Atherosclerosis and Vascular Remodelling Unit, HRI) and Professor Edward Fisher (New York University Grossman School of Medicine) have presented an analysis of this research in Nature Metabolism.

Atherosclerosis is the main underlying cause of cardiovascular disease. In atherosclerosis, plaques made up of fat, cholesterol and other substances build up in the arteries. These plaques can become unstable and rupture, forming clots that further block blood flow. If these clots occur in arteries to the heart or brain, they can trigger heart attack or stroke, respectively.

“Fully understanding the mechanisms and functions of the cells that make up atherosclerotic plaques is vitally important,” says Dr Misra.

It is an essential step towards developing strategies to prevent the terrible events that can result as atherosclerosis progresses, like heart attack and stroke.”

The new research published by Newman et al. investigates the roles of non-vascular smooth muscle cells in the formation and maintenance of the fibrous cap, a structure in atherosclerotic plaques that protects them from rupture. Data collected through a series of sophisticated studies suggest that in the presence of high levels of fat particles (a hyperlipidaemic environment), plaque cells show even more plasticity than previously understood.

“This plasticity could be exploited for new therapies for cardiovascular disease. For example, if the cells could be driven to form thicker and more protective fibrous caps, the plaques could be less likely to rupture, resulting in a lower chance of life-threatening blood clots,” Dr Misra says.

This could ultimately decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease.”

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