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What role do local stem cells play in atherosclerosis?

Dr Mohammadhossein Hassanshahi, Institution: University of Adelaide

2019 Postdoctoral Fellowship

Years funded: 2020-2021


Atherosclerosis is the build up of fatty plaques inside the body’s arteries. As the main cause of heart attack and stroke, it is the leading cause of death worldwide. We need to better understand how atherosclerosis occurs to improve the ways we treat it. Although most atherosclerosis research focuses on the development of plaque itself, an important but under-recognised aspect of the disease are changes that take place in the outer layer of the artery wall (or adventitia). These involve expansion of inflammatory cells, called macrophages and tiny blood vessels, called vasa vasorum, that together feed the growth of plaque from the outside of the artery in. How these changes occur remains unclear.

In a world-first, we have discovered a population of “stem cells” nestled in the adventitia of arteries that originate from specialised stem cells in early embryonic life. These stem cells (or haemangoblasts) produce both macrophages and blood vessels, and are increased in atherosclerotic arteries. We are studying how these haemangioblasts become involved and contribute to early and late stage atherosclerosis, and whether they are resopnsible for aggravating and destabilising plaque. The lessons learnt from our research could change the way scientists think about atherosclerosis and pave the way for new treatments that target haemangioblasts to impact the burden it causes human health.

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