Treating Hardening of the Arteries: Smaller is Better

What's one-thousandth the thickness of dollar but can reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke? If you answered “nanoparticles,” you were right – and you also probably peeked ahead in this article.

Cardiovascular disease kills more people each year than cancer. Many of these deaths are attributed to atherosclerosis, which is best viewed as congestion along the highways of your blood vessels. Branching, looping, doubling back, your arteries literally traverse miles within your body. Every minute, more than a gallon of blood pumps through the human heart and back out through this complex network of very narrow tubing.

Unfortunately, it is not always smooth sailing. Plaque – a waxy glob made from cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, fibrin (a clotting material in the blood), and calcium– can build up along the walls of the arteries, narrowing or “hardening” them. If the globs grow large enough they can block a vessel. Sometimes pieces of the plaques chip off and travel to smaller vessels, clogging those up. Should any of these actions prevent blood from reaching the brain or heart, a stroke or heart attack will result.

Doctors have traditionally used medications known as statins to combat hardening of the arteries. These not only lower a patient's cholesterol level, but also help his body to reabsorb cholesterol that has built up along the artery walls.

Statins work, but need a life-long commitment. Stop taking them, and you will see your cholesterol levels rise back up.

Nanotechnology offers an entirely different approach to battling congestion along your bloodstream.  Biomedical engineers have built ridiculously tiny – 100 time smaller than even a red blood cell – vessels designed to sweep into clogged arteries to shrink the plaques that clog the flow of blood.

These nanoparticles aren't brute-forcing their way past the atherosclerotic plaque. They home in on the targets by binding to immune cells in the area. Some do this by mimicking natural cholesterol molecules and others search for collagen exposed in damaged vessel walls. Once at the location of a plaque, either the nanoparticles themselves or a piggybacked drug can do the cleanup work.

It's great stuff, but we are still a long ways away from being able to walk into a Walmart and buy a box of nano-pills. In fact, the treatment is still in the animal testing phase. And medicine hasn't quite worked through who would benefit from the treatment. One school of thought upholds that nano-treatments should be visited upon those with severe atherosclerosis who receive stents or other invasive procedures to clear their blockages. Another point of view envisions the use of nanomedicine as a preventative measure, a monthly nano-shot delivering pro-active medication to high-risk patients. Whatever direction it ultimately takes, one thing is certain: the future of atherosclerosis treatment is... not very big.