Mistaken identity

November 1, 2012
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2012

In a finding that upends decades of thinking about deadly vascular diseases, researchers at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center have identified a multipotent stem cell as the cause of blocked arteries. Previously, heart attacks and strokes were attributed to the proliferation of smooth muscle cells lining blood vessel walls that combined with cholesterol and fat to clog arteries.

However, the Berkeley research indicates that the blockage is instead caused by a newly discovered type of stem cell, which may remain dormant for decades, then multiply when the blood vessel walls are damaged. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, calls for a focus on vascular stem cells in the search for future treatments.

“For the first time, we are showing evidence that vascular diseases are actually a kind of stem cell disease instead of a smooth muscle disease,” says bioengineering professor Song Li, the study’s principal investigator. “This work should revolutionize therapies for vascular diseases because we now know that stem cells, rather than smooth muscle cells, are the correct therapeutic target.”