Common virus linked to damaged arteries and heart disease

New research suggests that it might one day be possible to develop a heart disease vaccine.

A “harmless” virus carried by half the adult population may be an indirect cause of heart disease, new research suggests.

The effects of cytomegalovirus (CMV) could make it possible to “catch” a susceptibility to heart disease, currently thought of as a non-communicable condition.

CMV is a cousin of the herpes virus responsible for cold sores and chicken pox.

Once acquired, it stays in the body for life, but is regarded as relatively harmless.

The new research by a team of British scientists has linked CMV infection to the accumulation of high numbers of immune “memory cells” in the blood stream.

These in turn are associated with inflammation and the potentially deadly build up of scaly plaque deposits made from fat, calcium and cholesterol on artery walls.

When blood is unable to flow through coronary arteries blocked by atherosclerotic plaques it can lead to a heart attack.

Dr Alejandra Pera, from Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said: “Our work… shows that an infection by CMV is responsible for the accumulation of high numbers of unusual immune cells that are linked to coronary heart disease.

“They are a stronger indicator of cardiovascular death risk than age.”

CMV is easily spread by human contact and bodily fluids. It may also be passed from mother to baby during childbirth.

The findings, published in the journal Theranostics, were presented as part of the British Science Festival taking place in Hull next week.

They open up the possibility of tackling heart disease with anti-viral drugs or vaccines, said the scientists – though no CMV vaccine exists at present.

Another approach could be to target a natural signalling molecule, IL-7, that is known to trigger the expansion of immune cells after infection.

Co-author Dr Stefano Caserta, from the University of Hull, said: “Currently we do not know whether IL-7 may also be behind the build-up of immune cells following CMV infection that some people may experience.

“However, it does mean we are now discovering what we can do to finely tune the immune responses, so that in future we could tailor therapies around individual cases.”

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