Harnessing “Autophagy” to Treat Heart Disease
Atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease caused by the build-up of cholesterol deposits in the artery wall, is responsible for one in five deaths in Canada. Meanwhile, existing cholesterol-lowering drugs are only partially effective at reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. New therapies are urgently needed to combat this deadly disease.
Dr. Mireille Ouimet, Canada Research Chair in Cardiovascular Metabolism and Cell Biology, is looking for new ways to improve the removal of cholesterol from atherosclerotic plaques, stop the plaques from growing bigger, and possibly even reduce their size. Ouimet and her research team are testing whether increasing a process in cells called “autophagy”—which breaks down lipids and exports them—could achieve this.
Autophagy plays a key role in recycling toxic elements from cells and promotes cell survival during periods of cell stress. Through autophagy, cellular components are delivered to organelles called lysosomes (the waste disposal system of the cell), which digest unwanted materials. Ouimet’s research has already shown that autophagy can also engulf and digest cholesterol that has accumulated in the artery wall. This process helps remove cholesterol, providing an entirely new therapeutic target to reverse atherosclerosis.
By shedding light on the fundamental mechanisms of lipid autophagy, Ouimet and her research team hope to identify pathway components that can be targeted and manipulated to treat heart disease. They are also looking for new targets for developing drugs that can increase cholesterol breakdown and export by cells in the artery wall.