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Drugs to ‘re-programme’ white blood cells could prevent strokes

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Medication which targets white blood cells and stabilises atherosclerotic plaques could be used to help prevent strokes, new research has revealed. 

By ‘re-programming’ white blood cells, the ability to switch them from a pro-inflammatory to an anti-inflammatory state has been discovered. Pro-inflammatory white blood cells are known to make atherosclerotic plaques unstable, making them more likely to rupture and block blood flow to the brain.

When the University of Sheffield research team took a type of white blood cell known as macrophages from human blood samples and treated them with a common anti-inflammatory drug for 24 hours, they found that the macrophages themselves became anti-inflammatory.

Unveiling their findings yesterday at the British Cardiovascular Society conference, the anti-inflammatory macrophages were also less able to bind to and ingest harmful oxidised LDL (OxLDL), known to play a major role in atherosclerosis and present in high quantities in plaques most likely to lead to a stroke.

Each year in the UK more than 100,000 people have a stroke, with around a quarter of these caused by a build-up of atherosclerotic plaques in the carotid arteries – the main blood vessels in the neck.

Currently, the only way to prevent unstable plaques from disintegrating and causing a stroke is to remove them in surgery. The researchers hope that in the future anti-inflammatory drugs could be used to stabilise plaques and reduce the risk of a stroke occurring without the need for surgical intervention. 

Professor Sheila Francis, Professor of Cardiovascular Biology at the University of Sheffield, says: “We’ve found an entirely new way to stabilise the most threatening atherosclerotic plaques and we’re really excited about the potential to use this method to prevent strokes.

“We now need to see whether anti-inflammatory drugs have the same effect within the body itself and, if so, we’ll be looking to take them swiftly into clinical trials.”

“In the UK, 1.3 million people are living with the after-effects of stroke. For many of them there is no proven treatment to limit the damage the stoke has caused. Preventing a stroke before it strikes is the ultimate ambition in stroke medicine,” says Professor James Leiper, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation. 

“This research is at an early stage now but if these findings can be replicated and extended in people we may finally have found a way to reduce risk of the risk of stroke for many thousands of people each year.”

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