3D view: Why aging arteries lose stretch

U. MISSOURI (US) — Advanced 3D microscopic imaging is helping scientists identify and monitor proteins involved in stiffening arteries—a major factor in cardiovascular disease.

The new technology could eventually advance the understanding and treatment of the disease—a leading cause of death in the US because it contributes to the circulatory complications in disorders such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

“A majority of the scientific knowledge of how blood vessels are put together is based on older methodologies that only measured the amount of protein in the artery wall and not how the proteins were architecturally arranged to support artery functions,” says Gerald Meininger, professor of medical pharmacology and physiology at the University of Missouri.


“We used state-of-the-art imaging technology and computer-based models to visualize the minute structural elements within an intact blood vessel and found that one of the proteins, elastin, plays a key role in supporting the ability of the arterial wall to properly function.”

The study is reported in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.

As people age, the level of elastin diminishes and other proteins, such as collagen, contribute to altering the arterial stiffness. Researchers believe that learning how to alter elastin levels may alleviate some of the detrimental results associated with vascular aging, such as high blood pressure.

“When people think of blood vessels, they tend to think of rigid pipes, but blood vessels are very dynamic because they continually expand and contract to adjust blood flow and blood pressure to meet the body’s needs,” says Michael Hill, professor of medical pharmacology and physiology. “Elastin production peaks at a very young age and declines throughout life.  Molecular biologists are trying to determine how to turn elastin production back on in the correct places, but it has proven very difficult so far.”

The researchers believe the study’s findings may also be used in future efforts to develop artificial vascular structures to improve tissue replacement. Blood vessels sometimes fail during the tissue replacement process, and understanding how vessels are built and change could lead to a better success rate.

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