(International Business Times) – A new study has overturned fundamentally held assumptions about atherosclerotic plaques that can cause deadly heart attacks and strokes, changing medical science’s understanding of why and how arteries harden.
The standing belief in the medical community has been that smooth muscle cells, which help blood vessels contract and dilate, were thought to “wall off” sections of plaque as a defense mechanism against its buildup. However, researchers from the University of Virginia School of Medicine found that a majority of these cells were, in fact, contributing to the buildup of the plaque, instead of fighting it. The results of their study were published Monday in the journal Nature.
“We suspected there was a small number of smooth muscle cells we were failing to identify using the typical immunostaining detection methods. It wasn’t a small number. It was eighty-two percent,” Gary K. Owens, of the University of Virginia Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center, said in a press release. “Eighty-two percent of the smooth muscle cells within advanced atherosclerotic lesions cannot be identified using the typical methodology since the lesion cells down-regulate smooth muscle cell markers. As such, we have grossly underestimated how many smooth muscle cells are in the lesion.”