In Brief
Researchers found a protein that, one day, could be used to stop heart attacks and strokes by preventing arteries from clogging.

A Heart Problem

Unhealthy eating habits (looking at you, bacon) is often the cause of declining health. Indeed, coronary heart diseases kills 610,000 people in the United States each year (that’s 1 in 4 people).

Now, scientists at the University of Missouri found that Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), a protein that is naturally found in high levels among adolescents, can help prevent arteries from clogging. By increasing the protein levels of patients with atherosclerosis, the amount of plaque buildup in their arteries decreases, thereby lowering their risk of heart disease.

“The body already works to remove plaque from arteries through certain types of white blood cells called macrophages,” said Yusuke Higashi, PhD, assistant research professor in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “However, as we age, macrophages are not able to remove plaque from the arteries as easily. Our findings suggest that increasing IGF-1 in macrophages could be the basis for new approaches to reduce clogged arteries and promote plaque stability in aging populations.”

Image source: NHLBI
Image source: NHLBI

Long Way Before Human Testing

Scientists examined mice whose macrophages were unresponsive to IGF-1 and found that their arteries have more plaque buildup than normal mice. The results were consistent with the findings that IGF-1 helps prevent plaque formation in the arteries.

Notably, the team asserts that a weakening of the IGF-1 action in macrophages changes the composition of the plaque. Ultimately, this weaken its strength and, as a result, make it more likely to rupture and cause a heart attack.

Researchers plan to conduct the same study on larger animals before eventually studying human subjects. However, as is always the case, there is a long window between research and the development of new treatments. FDA approval is, in itself, generally a decade long process, and this doesn’t even take into consideration all the clinical trials that are necessary prior to approval. Still, the information adds new information to our understanding and provides new hope.