Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for Americans, and high cholesterol plays a major role in a person's risk for developing heart disease. Doctors and researchers have been trying to understand the effects of cholesterol on a person's risk for coronary artery disease.
Research by scientists at UCLA and the University of Western Australia has developed a new way of seeing how cholesterol moves in and out of cells. By better understanding how cholesterol moves through cells and where it pools, researchers can continue to develop new treatment options for high cholesterol.
The cholesterol–heart disease connection
The American Heart Association says that 2,100 Americans die of heart disease every day. But many people can greatly lower their risk with lifestyle changes, particularly by lowering cholesterol. When people aren't able to lower their cholesterol through lifestyle, doctors prescribe medications, most commonly statins.
For patients, the advice on the effects of cholesterol can be conflicting and often confusing. Just last year, a study published in BMJ Open claimed there was no link between cholesterol and heart disease. That news was picked up by multiple media outlets.
However, most doctors know there is a link between cholesterol and heart disease, but they don't know the exact mechanisms of the link. Learning how the two are linked can help develop new, more effective treatment options, as well as clear up some of the conflicting messages.
Visualizing cholesterol in the body
That's where the latest research at UCLA is making an impact. Using a form of high-resolution imaging mass spectrometry, called NanoSIMS imaging, researchers were able to visualize how cholesterol moves in and out of cells and where it collects. They were able to quantify a pool of cholesterol called "accessible cholesterol," which sits on the cells' surface. Scientists think that this pool of cholesterol regulates cellular cholesterol production and affects the ability of cells to unload excess cholesterol.
In their visualization, researchers found that the pools of cholesterol tend to concentrate on microvilli, specialized projections from the cell's plasma membrane. Stephen Young, MD, the study's co-author and a professor of medicine and human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says other researchers have suspected that microvilli play a role in moving cholesterol in and out of cells. This current research also supports that idea.
The visualization provided with NanoSIMS imaging will complement future research to see how cells dispose of excess cholesterol and may help researchers understand the connection between having an excess of this essential lipid and the risk for heart attack or stroke.
By Patricia Chaney