Scientists at Michigan State University have found that cholesterol crystals can disrupt plaque in a patient's cardiovascular system, and thereby cause a heart attack or stroke.
George Abela, chief of the cardiology division in MSU's College of Human Medicine, believes that the new finding may significantly change the way doctors and researchers approach cardiovascular attacks.
"Any time there is something completely new or unique in medical research, it is met with healthy skepticism. But we have found something that can help dramatically change how we treat heart disease," said Abela, who has been working with cholesterol crystals since 2001.
During the study, Abela and his colleagues observed that as cholesterol builds up along the wall of an artery, it crystallizes from a liquid to a solid state and then expands.
"As the cholesterol crystallizes, two things can happen. If it's a big pool of cholesterol, it will expand, causing the 'cap' of the deposit to tear off in the arterial wall. Or the crystals, which are sharp, needle-like structures, poke their way through the cap covering the cholesterol deposit, like nails through wood," Abela said.
The researcher further says that such crystals work their way into the bloodstream.
According to him, the presence of this material, along with that of damage to an artery, disrupts plaque and puts the body's natural defence mechanism - clotting - into action.
This, according to him, can lead to dangerous, if not fatal, clots.
Abela's team studied coronary arteries and carotid plaques from patients who died of cardiovascular attacks.
The researchers compared their findings against a control group, and found evidence of cholesterol crystals disrupting plaque.
Abela's team have also found that cholesterol crystals released in the bloodstream during a cardiac attack or stroke can damage artery linings much further away from the site of the attack, leaving survivors at even greater risk.
He says that his study means that health care providers now have another weapon in their arsenal against cardiovascular diseases.
"So far, treatments have not been focused on this process. Now we have a target to attack with the various novel approaches. In the past, we've treated the various stages that lead to this final stage, rather than preventing or treating this final stage of the condition," Abela said.
He and his colleagues have also found that physical conditions like temperature can play a role in how quickly cholesterol crystallizes and potentially causes a rupture.
The findings of the current study appear in the American Journal of Cardiology.