Public Release: 

Strathclyde researchers go to the heart of blood vessels in £1.4 million research

University of Strathclyde

Scientists at the University of Strathclyde are developing tiny devices that capture images of signals as they travel the innermost layer of the body's blood vessels - helping to revolutionise our understanding of vascular disease.

Researchers have received £1.4 million from Wellcome and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to develop imaging technology capable of visualizing the endothelium - a thin layer of cells which covers the inside of body's entire cardiovascular system.

Professor John McCarron, of the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, is leading the research with Dr Calum Wilson and Professor John Girkin and Dr Chris Saunter from Durham University. Professor McCarron said: "The endothelium is a sophisticated, interconnected signalling network that is similar to a modern communication system.

"The endothelium continuously monitors blood pressure, blood flow rates and the composition of blood and then sends signals to control virtually all blood vessel functions, such as contraction of the artery, growth of new vessels and blood clotting. Malfunction of the endothelium underlies almost all vascular diseases, including hypertension and atherosclerosis and the vascular changes that occur in diabetes.

"The endothelium is an exceptionally complex sensory system. Although the endothelium is just one cell thick, there are 10 trillion endothelial cells - 100 times more than there are neurons in the brain - in a continuous layer throughout the cardiovascular system. There are 2000 cells per square millimetre.

"It was thought that these cells all operated in the same way. We are now seeing each one has unique properties and senses its environment in a way that is slightly different from its neighbour. Each cell senses only a tiny piece of information but that information is a little different from its neighbours. The cells pass their pieces of information around, so collectively there is a lot of information.

"The cells use this combined information to make decisions and solve problems as a collective. The behaviour provides a collective intelligence that is far beyond the capabilities of each cell and is like the intelligent behaviour - swarm intelligence - seen in colonies of ants or flocking birds. Problems in one part of the endothelium are sorted out without needing or affecting other regions. The number of cells in the endothelium is part of its strength and the collective behaviour means the system is a flexible, wide-ranging and fault-tolerant sensing and communication system.

"As it is the innermost lining of blood vessels, the endothelium has been exceptionally difficult to access and study. Our new miniature optical techniques allow us to see the endothelium at work from inside blood vessels and how it senses pressure and chemicals and the communication highways that relay information around the blood vessel.

"These techniques are already providing new understandings of how the endothelium network works normally and malfunctions in disease."

The study will look into changes brought about by hypertension and diabetes and aims to make the techniques available to laboratories throughout the world.

James Cant, Director of BHF Scotland, which is helping to fund the new research, said:

"Heart and circulatory diseases cause around 16,000 deaths each year in Scotland. Pioneering research like this at the University of Strathclyde is vital to developing new life saving treatments.

"Thanks to our supporters in Scotland, Scottish universities have been at the forefront of improving treatment for heart patients across the nation and around the world. With their donations we can fund this Strathclyde team, which we hope will make further progress in beating heart disease."

The BHF funds over £60 million of cardiovascular research in Scottish universities and hospitals. The charity is totally reliant on the support of the general public to fund its life saving research into heart disease, which blights thousands of lives in Scotland and millions around the world.

People can find out more about how the BHF uses donations to fund research at bhf.org.uk/research

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