Atherosclerosis, often referred to as hardening of the arteries, is a common ailment where the lining of the arterial wall builds up an accumulation of lipids which results in plaque and inflammation. It is a leading contributor to heart disease. In the diagram below, you can see how the build up of plaque can decrease the normal flow of blood. Researchers have long suspected that our bodies immune system plays a role, but to what extent it plays is not very well understood. Researchers at La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology, La Jolla California, have identified specific immune cells called T cells that trigger inflammatory attack on the artery wall. The study is published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Antigen-presenting cells sort of play clean up crew in the bloodstream. They pick up infectious and foreign material and chop them to bits called epitopes. Unfortunately, in the case of autoimmune diseases, they pick up self-proteins. T cells communicate with the antigen-presenting cells and produce a soldier molecule that attacks the epitopes and causes inflammation. The inflammatory cells bind with lipids in the arterial wall and the next thing you know you have a perfect heart-attack inducing blockage.
The immune cells behave as if they have previously seen the antigen when they attack. Klaus Ley, M.D., Division of Inflammation Biology, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology said, “The thing that excites me most about this finding is that these immune cells appear to have ‘memory’ of the molecule brought forth by the antigen-presenting cells…Immune memory is the underlying basis of successful vaccines. This means that conceptually it becomes possible to consider the development of a vaccine for heart disease.”
Dr. Ley believes the body mistakes its own proteins as being foreign and produces an inflammatory response. “Essentially, we’re saying that there appears to be a strong autoimmune component in heart disease,” he said, “Consequently, we could explore creating a “tolerogenic” vaccine, such as those now being explored in diabetes, which could induce tolerance by the body of this self-protein to stop the inflammatory attack.”
This is the first study to link T cells to atherosclerosis. Dr. Ley now has hope, due to this research, that someday we will be able to produce a vaccine for heart disease. For more information, visit La Jolla Institutes website at http://www.liai.org/.