German scientists have identified one of the causes of why people with diabetes are more at risk of heart attacks.
A research team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) believes that diabetes is associated with the loss of small blood vessels around heart, which affects the heart muscle, increasing the risk of heart attacks.
But the TUM team are working on a genetic therapy that promotes the growth of these blood vessels and could provide a new treatment option.
As part of the study, the researchers were comparing blood vessels of patients with and without diabetes who were about to undergo heart transplants.
It was discovered that higher blood glucose levels was linked to a decrease in cells known as pericytes. These normally form a protective layer around small blood vessels.
“We believe that this layer has a stabilising function,” said study author Dr Rabea Hinkel. “When it is damaged, the entire blood vessel becomes unstable and ultimately breaks up.”
Experiments on animals confirmed that untreated diabetes was associated with a steady decline in capillary density around the heart. Those with diabetes had significantly reduced numbers of small blood vessels around the heart.
But when Hinkel and colleagues applied a genetic therapy that stimulated the growth of pericytes, they were able to induce the growth of lasting and functional blood vessels.
“It will be a while before this kind of therapy can be used in humans,” said Prof. Christian Kupatt. “But we were able to show for the first time in a transgenic large animal model, which closely models human type 1 diabetes, how diabetes damages the heart.
“That opens up new perspectives for treating patients. It also further reinforces our awareness of how important it is to diagnose diabetes early.”
The findings appear online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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