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Stem cells may be to blame for clogged arteries

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A newly discovered type of stem cell may be one of the major driving forces behind heart attacks and other killer vascular diseases, according to a new study.  The finding may provide a brand new target for future heart disease treatments, the researchers said.

While doctors have long thought that it was the smooth muscle cells within the blood vessel walls that combined with cholesterol and fat to clog the arteries--and developed treatments accordingly--the new research indicates the guilty party may actually be a previously unknown type of stem cell, called a multipotent vascular stem cell.

In a study conducted in mice, researchers found it was these stem cells, rather than muscle cells, that formed the scar tissue that blocks the flow of blood in the arteries and causes them to harden.

According to the researchers, because multipotent stem cells are capable of becoming multiple types of cells, including smooth muscle, nerve, cartilage, bone and fat cells, the ability of the stem cells to form bone or cartilage could explain how a soft artery calcifies and hardens.

“We are very confident that vascular stem cells play a much more important role than what was thought previously,” principal investigator Dr. Song Li, professor of bioengineering and researcher at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center, told FoxNews.com.

Li said these stem cells appear to be involved in most major vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis and restenosis, or the clogging of the arteries.  The researchers also believe the stem cells are involved the repair and diseases of all blood vessels.

The study could potentially lead to an entirely new area of heart disease treatment, as there are no therapies or medications that currently target stem cells.

“Previous therapies focused on cholesterol metabolism and killing smooth muscle cells,” Li said.  “This new finding opens a door to new therapies that target the vascular stem cells, not only to block the proliferation of the stem cells but also stop their differentiation into bone, cartilage, and even fat cells…It will be a new area for vascular biology, medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.”

However, Li said it was important to note the stem cells aren’t all bad – they appear to not only be involved with disease development but also in the regeneration of blood vessels after certain surgeries, such as bypass procedures.

“The stem cells can do good and bad things, and the fate needs to be controlled after we understand the mechanisms,” Li said.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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