Transformer cells

Researchers ID cells that transform into tissue that caps off plaque in atherosclerosis. They also believe they’ve found the gene responsible for the transformation.

Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque — a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances within artery walls — causes a blockage or clot that can lead to a heart attack.

Now, researchers have identified a group of cells that transform into tissue that caps off plaque, preventing it from bursting into the arteries of someone with the condition.

They also believe they found the gene behind the transition of healthy smooth muscle cells — which form the wall of arteries and regulate blood flow and blood pressure — into fibrous cells that block the plaque from tearing open artery tissue.

“We know that things like poor diet and lack of exercise contribute to atherosclerosis,” said Thomas Quertermous, MD, the William G. Irwin Professor in Cardiovascular Medicine at Stanford. “But molecularly speaking, researchers still don’t know how the disease progresses or, conversely, is hindered.”

A paper describing the study, which showed that people who had more activity of the identified gene had a lower risk for heart attack, was published July 29 in Nature Medicine. Quertermous and Juyong Kim, MD, instructor of medicine, are the senior authors; Robert Wirka, MD, instructor of cardiovascular medicine, is the lead author.