Researchers at Imperial College London say the findings suggest the condition could potentially be treated by blocking the molecule that triggers the damage. The research also suggests bacteria may be playing a part in the disease.
Dr. Claudia Monaco says plaques form in arteries that feed the brain and heart, obstructing the blood flow. The plaques are made of substances like fatty deposits and cholesterol. Immune cells are attracted into these plaques, which form inside the wall of the artery, leading to the artery becoming inflamed and to the artery wall being damaged. Sometimes, the plaque can burst as a result of this damage, causing a stroke or heart attack.
The trigger identified is the molecule TLR-2, a "receptor" molecule that lives on the surface of an immune cell. When it recognizes harmful molecules and cells, including bacteria, it switches the immune cell into attack mode to protect the body. It can also switch on the immune cells when the body is under stress, Monaco says.
The study, published in the journal Circulation, finds that in laboratory tests, blocking the TLR-2 receptor stopped cells from making the molecules that cause inflammation and damage to the artery -- suggesting that the molecule is triggering the damage to the artery.