New immune target to treat cardiovascular disease discovered: The protein, suPAR, has been found to cause atherosclerosis and kidney disease, raising potential for new treatments.

For the longest time, clinicians have treated cardiovascular disease by focusing on diabetes and blood pressure control, reducing cholesterol using medications like aspirin and statins.

Despite these measures, heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, with many patients having heart attacks even after their risk factors are controlled, says Salim Hayek, M.D., physician-scientist and medical director of the University of Michigan Health Frankel Cardiovascular Clinics.

But a study led by Michigan Medicine has uncovered a protein produced by the immune system that causes atherosclerosis — the hardening of arteries that affects over a billion people worldwide — which offers the promise of new treatments.

“Targeting the immune component central to the development of atherosclerosis is the Holy Grail for the treatment of heart disease,” said Hayek, senior author of the study “This is the first time that a component of the immune system is identified that meets all the requirements for being a promising treatment target for atherosclerosis.”

This protein, called soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor, or suPAR, is produced by the bone marrow. It acts as a regulator, essentially a thermostat for the activity of the immune system, or “immunostat.”

Past studies have shown suPAR to be a marker of cardiovascular disease. But this study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, is the first evidence showing that the protein actually causes atherosclerosis when at high levels.

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