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Study shows why cholesterol damages arteries

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Professor Latz has recently been recruited by the University of Bonn after working ten years in basic research in the United States. Here, he heads the new Institute for Innate Immunity (Institut für Angeborene Immunität), which has a research focus on the immune mechanisms that cause inflammatory reactions. The innate immune system forms part of the body's own defence mechanism and is able to respond rapidly and directly to a number of alarm signals that appear in the tissue environment. These triggers not only include viruses, bacteria and fungi but also certain crystals and other substances that occur during infections of in stress situations. The strength of the innate immune system is that it can respond very quickly to situations that are of danger to the host. The problem, however, is that it can also overshoot the mark. This type of overreaction is also seen in the case of pneumoconioses such as the black lung, a disease which frequently affects miners. In these lung diseases, a chronic inflammatory reaction is triggered by inhaled crystals made of silicates or asbestos. The molecular mechanisms of crystal recognition are similar to those triggered by cholesterol crystals in blood vessels.

Starting point for developing new drugs

There is still a piece of the jigsaw puzzle missing which researchers need to complete the overall picture. “We don't know precisely how the cholesterol crystals activate the inflammasome”, says Professor Latz. The findings of this study however, offer some starting points for developing new drug therapies. At present, statins are widely used in therapy. Statins reduce the synthesis of endogenous – i.e. the body's self-produced cholesterol and diminish the risk of heart attack or stroke, but they cannot inhibit the absorption of cholesterol from ones diet.

Estimates by the World Health Organization put the number of people now dying from cardiovascular diseases at almost 17 million per year. This means that one in four deaths worldwide is caused by atherosclerosis.

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