Public release date: 13-Mar-2008
Researchers have discovered how diabetes, by driving inflammation and slowing blood flow, dramatically accelerates atherosclerosis, according to research to be published in the March 14 edition of the journal Circulation Research.
Experts once believed that atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, developed when too much cholesterol clogged arteries with fatty deposits called plaques. When blood vessels became completely blocked, heart attacks and strokes occurred. Today most agree that the reaction of the body’s immune system to fatty build-up, more than the build-up itself, creates heart attack risk. Immune cells traveling with the blood mistake fatty deposits for intruders, akin to bacteria, home in on them, and attack. This causes inflammation that makes plaques more likely to swell, rupture and cut off blood flow.
Making matters worse, nearly 21 million Americans have diabetes, a disease where patients’ cells cannot efficiently take in dietary sugar, causing it to build up in the blood. In part because diabetes increases atherosclerosis-related inflammation, diabetic patients are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
Past work has shown that high blood sugar has two effects on cells lining blood vessels as part of atheroslerosis. First, it increases the production of free radicals, highly reactive molecules that tear about sensitive cell components like DNA, causing premature cell death (apoptosis). This process also reduces the availability of nitric oxide (NO), which would otherwise enable blood vessels to relax and blood flow to increase. In contrast to diabetes, exercise and good diet bring about faster blood flow through blood vessels. The force created by fast, steady blood flow as it drags along blood vessel walls has been shown by recent studies to protect arteries from atherosclerosis. Physical force has emerged recently as a key player in bodily function, capable of kicking off biochemical processes (e.g. weightlifting thickens bone).
“Inflammation is blood vessels is one of the main drivers of atherosclerosis, and diabetes makes it much worse,” said Jun-ichi Abe, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor with the Aab Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and a study author. “Our study argues that a pathway surrounding a key signaling enzyme both protects the heart in normal cases, and is sabotaged by the chemicals produced in diabetes. We believe we have found a new therapeutic target for the treatment of diabetes-related damage to blood vessels.”