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Reversing atherosclerosis with one shot

New research demonstrates that injecting synthetically designed nanofibers in mice helps to break up the arterial plaque that is a hallmark of atherosclerosis.
plaque build up inside of arteries
A new study suggests that an injection might be able to reduce arterial plaque (depicted here).

Atherosclerosis is a condition in which plaque builds inside the arteries, stiffening and eventually clogging them.

Plaque is a waxy substance that's made of cholesterol, fat, fragments of cellular waste, calcium, and fibrin, an insoluble protein that helps the blood to clot.

As plaque gradually builds up inside the arteries, it causes the vessels to lose their elasticity, which makes them less efficient at pumping blood.

It also makes the walls inside the arteries thicker, which limits the flow of oxygen to the cells. Over time, plaque can lead to blood clots, or parts of it can detach and block the arteries.

For these reasons, atherosclerosis may lead to coronary heart disease, angina, peripheral artery disease, or chronic kidney disease, among other conditions.

Current therapies for atherosclerosis include the use of statins, which help to regulate cholesterol levels. However, these drugs only help to keep the condition in check; they don't reverse it.

New research, however, shows that one day, reversing this condition could be possible. Dr. Neel A. Mansukhani — an integrated vascular surgery fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL — led a study in which synthetically created nanofibers were used in a mouse model of atherosclerosis.

The injection successfully targeted the buildup of cholesterol and led to the breaking up of plaque. The findings were presented at the American Heart Association's conference Vascular Discovery: From Genes to Medicine Scientific Sessions 2018, held in San Francisco, CA.

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Dr. Mansukhani explains how the researchers decided to design very small fibers that contained cholesterol-removing particles. "Our aim," he says, "was to develop a non-invasive, non-surgical, novel therapy to halt and reverse the disease by actually targeting the vessel wall with peptide-based nanofibers developed in the laboratory."

The authors explain that the small fibers contain a key amino acid sequence that melts down the cholesterol.

To test the newly designed substance, Dr. Mansukhani and team genetically engineered mice to have atherosclerosis. Then, they placed the mice on a high-fat diet for 14 weeks.

After the 14 weeks, some of the rodents were injected with the nanofibers and some with saline water biweekly for 8 weeks.

"[F]irst we wanted to confirm that the therapy actually targeted areas of atherosclerosis," says Dr. Mansukhani. To this end, he and his team used imaging techniques to trace the effect of the therapeutic substance in the rodents' bodies.

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The effects were noticeable after 24 hours, lasted up to 72 hours, and were completely gone in 7–10 days.

Overall, at the end of the 8-week treatment period, the plaque in the male mice decreased by 11 percent, and that in the females dropped by 9 percent.

"[The results] demonstrate that a novel targeted nanofiber binds specifically to atherosclerotic lesions and reduces plaque burden after a short treatment duration."

Dr. Neel A. Mansukhani

Despite these promising results, the authors caution that the findings are just preliminary, and that more tests are required before the innovative method can be trialed in humans.

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