New cellular treatment could cure chronic artery disease

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A new, cellular-level approach to removing plaque build-up in the arteries could eventually lead to a cure for the chronic disease known as atherosclerosis, according to a researcher at Missouri University of Science and Technology. The method uses nanoparticles that can be designed to deliver plaque-busting drugs to specific cells in arteries. The nanoparticles have an average diameter of 150 nanometers, about 1/500th the diameter of a human hair.

Arterial plaque is made of fats, cholesterol, calcium and other substances in the blood and can restrict blood flow to organs and other parts of the body. Bits of plaque can break loose and cause blood clots that may lead to heart attack or stroke. There is currently no cure for atherosclerosis, but the condition can be slowed with statin drugs and dietary changes. The new method takes a different approach.

“Our nano formulation directly targets plaque cells and shuts down the intake pathway,” says Dr. Hu Yang, chair of the Linda and Bipin Doshi Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Missouri S&T. “We essentially retrain the cells to move cholesterol and lipids through the arteries without accumulating. The drug can also remove cholesterol that is already in the plaque cells, something current medications cannot do. We have observed a significant reduction in plaque in just a few months of experiments.”

Yang’s research team has filed for a patent that is in the final stage of approval. He says the next step is to understand the body’s mechanism for flushing cholesterol from the system after it clears the arteries and to design the drug’s dose strength.

Yang says the team is building evidence of the treatment’s efficacy so that they can attract interest from pharmaceutical companies. Another goal is establishing human clinical trials to ensure the treatment’s effectiveness and safety.

The atherosclerosis research is an example of how chemical engineering has evolved and is integrating other disciplines, Yang says. He is working on the project with researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. The journal Biomaterials published the research team’s latest study in its November 2020 issue. The research is supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Yang’s project showcases the types of research that complement the University of Missouri System’s NextGen Precision Health Initiative. NextGen is expected to accelerate medical breakthroughs and improve lives by harnessing the research being done at the system’s four universities and training a new generation of health scientists and practitioners.