Cholesterol Crystals Can Lead to Inflammation of Arteries
The discovery by cardiologist George Abela and a team of researchers 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, said Abela, who has been studying cholesterol crystals for nearly a decade. As the crystals expand, they can disrupt plaque and cause clotting, leading to cardiac attacks.
Image: The protruding elements seen in the different slides are cholesterol crystals. Those elements are arising from within the artery wall, causing tearing and damage to the artery.
In a new discovery, Abela and the team – while looking at causes of inflammation during atherosclerosis in mice – 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 said.
“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 said. “We can target new therapies by reducing cholesterol crystal deposits early on or use an inhibitor to block the inflammatory biomarker.”
Abela added 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.
1. George Abela, et al. NLRP3 inflammasomes are required for atherogenesis and activated by cholesterol crystals. Nature 464, 1357-1361 (29 April 2010) doi:10.1038/nature08938