The fatty acids are made by an enzyme produced by a gene first cloned at NIEHS -- and the gene itself, when implanted in the arterial cells, can produce the same protective effect, the researchers said.
The findings were published in the journal Science.
The fatty acid studies were performed in cultured human cells (from the lining of the arteries) and in live mice. They show that the introduction of fatty acid compounds called EETs can suppress the inflammation of arteries and may thereby protect against the development of atherosclerosis.
James Liao, M.D., of the Harvard-associated Brigham and Women's Hospital, said EETs may also be important in some cancers and rheumatic diseases where inflammatory cells have a role.
Darryl C. Zeldin, M.D., of NIEHS, a senior co-author on the study, originally cloned the CYP2J2 gene. "Since our studies have thus far been limited to tissue cultures and mice, we are still at a very early phase of discovery on the anti-inflammatory potential of the EETs and their stable analogs in humans," Zeldin said, "but the results show exciting potential."
Indeed, Liao said, "EETs may be the next generation of molecules that can be used to combat atherosclerosis and other diseases arising from inflammation." Atherosclerosis, a thickening and build-up of plaque in the arteries, occurs when the innermost layer of the artery, the endothelium, becomes damaged by cholesterol, toxins, oxidants, or infectious agents.
The damaged endothelial cells in the artery walls produce adhesion molecules. These adhesion molecules allow white blood cells to accumulate in the vessel wall. A large build-up of white blood cells coupled with the build-up of fats and cholesterol can inflame and thicken an artery to the point where it becomes vulnerable to complete blockage from a clot. A heart attack or stroke can result.
Heart attacks are the number one cause of death in the United States.
The researchers discovered that EETs and their stable metabolites can suppress the artery's endothelium from producing the adhesion molecules.
Furthermore, the researchers found that transferring the human CYP2J2 gene into the endothelial cells reproduced the anti-inflammatory effects. They said this suggests that, in the future, these genes might be transferred into arteries by gene therapy to help reduce vascular inflammation and atherosclerosis risk.