Type of Stem Cell May Contribute to Heart Disease

UC Berkeley scientists have discovered a type of stem cell that appears to lie dormant in blood vessel walls for decades before waking up and causing the arterial hardening and clogging that are associated with deadly strokes and heart attacks.


The findings, published on June 6, 2012 in the journal Nature Communications, go against the prevailing theory on the cause of heart disease - that the smooth muscle cells that line blood vessels become damaged over time and are triggered to proliferate. Those smooth muscle cells were thought to build up like scar tissue and cause the blood vessels to become narrow or brittle.


The new theory suggests that the smooth muscle cells found in the blood vessel walls aren't to blame, but rather a small cluster of stem cells is. It's those stem cells that proliferate and cause damage, and they should be the target of drug therapies to treat, and potentially cure, heart disease, the UC Berkeley scientists say.


"We call them sleeping beauty or sleeping evil cells, because they don't do anything when they're dormant. The stem cells stay quiescent for decades before they start to grow and they make the blood vessels harden," said senior author Song Li, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley and a researcher at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center.


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