Reducing humanity's biggest killer

Coronary artery disease treatments have come a long way in recent decades. Yet the condition remains humanity’s biggest killer.

Even those who survive a heart attack face a high risk of recurrence, or stroke. In part, this is due to a lack of understanding and response to inflammation’s role in the disease. But University of Adelaide-led research is filling that gap—and could well transform treatment for many other conditions in the process.

"We have exciting preliminary data that could revolutionise the way we treat coronary artery disease and heart attacks.”Dr Psaltis

In a world first, a team led by cardiologist Dr Peter Psaltis, a senior research fellow at the University, has discovered in different adult tissues a stem-like cell that produces macrophages, a type of white blood cell critical in inflammatory conditions.

Called macrophage progenitor cells, they were first discovered in the walls of arteries, where they become active during atherosclerosis, the build-up of cholesterol-rich, inflamed plaques that narrow arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes.

“The number of macrophage progenitor cells quickly expands in the artery wall during atherosclerosis,” says Dr Psaltis, who is also Deputy Leader, Heart Health Theme at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute. “They produce lots of macrophages, including those that seek out cholesterol and accumulate to form inflamed plaques.”

Peter Psaltis

According to Dr Psaltis, he and his team are learning more about macrophage progenitor cells’ properties every day, including how they initially get into arteries and what roles they play in healthy and diseased blood vessels.

“We’ve now identified that they also exist in other organs and tissues in the body, where they contribute macrophages during inflammatory responses to other types of insult or injury. The more we understand about these novel cells, the more we believe they can be targeted or harvested and used to treat different diseases in the future.”

The team is also investigating new therapies directly targeting macrophages in atherosclerotic plaque. One of these includes repurposing the existing drug colchicine, normally used to treat gout, a form of arthritis that inflames joints.

“We have exciting preliminary data suggesting colchicine may be an effective way to target the inflammation in plaque,” he says. “It could revolutionise the way we treat coronary artery disease and heart attacks.”

Learn more about Dr Psaltis