MICHIGAN STATE (US)—Cholesterol crystals, known to be a catalyst for heart attacks and strokes, also cause cells to send out danger signals that can lead to the inflammation and hardening of arteries.

The discovery provides new insights into how arteries harden—a process called atherosclerosis—and gives hope for new and early treatments of cardiovascular disease.

Past research has shown that as cholesterol builds up along the wall of an artery, it crystallizes from a liquid to a solid state and expands. As the crystals expand, they can disrupt plaque and cause clotting, leading to cardiac attacks.

While looking at causes of inflammation during atherosclerosis in mice, a team led by George Abela, chief of the cardiology division at Michigan State University, found that the once cholesterol crystals form in the arterial wall, they activate a biomarker called NLRP3 that induces inflammation.

“What we have found now, at the cellular level, is that the crystals are an early cause rather than a late consequence of inflammation,” Abela explains. The discovery could lead to new treatments for heart disease.

Details of the research appear in the most recent issue of the journal Nature and also in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology.

“Since cholesterol crystals form very early in the process of heart disease, with great potential to aggravate atherosclerosis, we can target them early on,” Abela says.

“We can target new therapies by reducing cholesterol crystal deposits early on or use an inhibitor to block the inflammatory biomarker.”

Abela adds that the biomarker activated by the crystals could be a better indicator of potential cardiovascular disease than others, such as serum cholesterol, or the amount of cholesterol found in the bloodstream.

“Now we treat atherosclerosis on the systematic level; with this discovery we can also treat it the cellular level,” he said.

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