Civelek and his team wanted to unravel a longstanding mystery about the behavior of smooth muscle cells during plaque formation. These cells, which line our blood vessels, are integral in protecting the body during plaque formation – they build stabilizing caps over the plaques that prevent the lesions from breaking loose and causing strokes. But sometimes these beneficial smooth muscle cells take off their white hats and put on black ones. Instead of helping to stabilize the plaques, they begin to accelerate the plaque development and spur the progression of CAD, scientists believe.
Civelek’s new discovery helps explain why. Noah Perry, a PhD student on Civelek’s team, analyzed smooth muscle cells collected from 151 heart transplant donors and used a sophisticated approach to identify genes responsible for the smooth muscle cells’ behavior.
After initially identifying 86 groups of genes, the researchers focused in on 18 groups that could explain the mysterious behavior. Their analysis suggested that the smooth muscle cells’ shift to the dark side might stem from problems with how the cells use nitrogen and glycogen. (Glycogen is how the body stores the sugar glucose.)