May 30, 2017

There’s no love lost between the cardiovascular system and the world’s population – after all, heart disease is the leading cause of death around the globe. While scientists have long attempted to create vascular models to explore potential causes, preventions, treatments and cures for vascular disease, understanding just how each medical condition arises has hampered potential discovery.

A recent study authored by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and Wisconsin National Primate Research Center scientist Dr. Igor Slukvin and Akhilesh Kumar, assistant researcher in his lab, might change all of that. Now, scientists are poised to get a better look at the fundamental development of the cells that make up blood vessels and how they can be more reliably cultured in the laboratory dish.

The new scientific advancement provides a blueprint for how vasculature arises at the earliest stages of development, allowing scientists to study the cells that compose blood vessels and devise new models for studying blood vessel disease. Critically, the discovery of methods to generate the building-block cells could set the stage for engineering blood vessels in the laboratory for disease modeling, drug screening and therapeutic purposes.

“Now, investigators will have access to a plethora of new research identifying cell type alternatives for vascular engineering,” said Kumar, noting that the new Wisconsin study, paired with the ability of the progenitor stem cells to proliferate and differentiate to different cell types in culture, can potentially accelerate the time it takes to grow vascular grafts.

Previously, identifying different vascular cell types in living tissue was the easy part; distinguishing cell types from cells grown in culture was a different story. In the study, Kumar made an important revelation – cells that compose blood vessels arise from a common progenitor. The ability to trace the developmental path that gives rise to the cells that make up blood vessels provides science a potent pathway to devise new cellular therapies.

Immediate application of this scientific research includes creating laboratory models for vascular disease to inform a better basic understanding of what goes wrong in killers such as coronary artery disease and certain genetic diseases that affect vasculature. Moreover, these cells can be used in high-throughput drug screens, accelerating the pace of development of new drugs and repurposing old ones to treat vascular ailments. Creating new blood vessels from scratch is still far from reality, but the new Wisconsin study is an essential step toward that goal.

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