Scientists say our 'smooth' muscles can help fight heart disease

Scottish scientists have made a key breakthrough in the search for the causes of serious conditions such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

The researchers, funded by a 1 million grant, are investigating the role of "smooth" muscles, which are found inside organs such as the stomach and bladder.

The team, from the University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde, have developed a new technique to study these muscles to find out what goes wrong to cause diseases including heart problems and stroke.

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Smooth muscles play a major part in controlling blood flow, blood pressure and the digestion of food.

They are found in the walls of hollow organs like the intestines and stomach and work automatically without people being aware of them.

Smooth muscles are involved in many "housekeeping" functions such as pushing food through the body.

For all of this to operate properly, the muscles must act in a co-ordinated way, but it is unclear how they do this. Scientists do know, however, that calcium plays a part in this complex process.

The researchers in Glasgow have now developed a new system for looking at calcium in targeted areas of blood cells.

They have received a 1m programme grant from the Wellcome Trust to take their investigation further.

Professor John McCarron, from the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, said: "The malfunction of smooth muscle is a cause of many debilitating diseases and conditions and problems with controlling calcium are underlying in conditions like hypertension.

"We have to find out how and why it happens if we are to tackle these illnesses."

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Prof McCarron said until now the research in this area had been complicated by the fact that cells grown in lab conditions for study very quickly ceased to resemble or function like real cells. This means results from these cells are often unclear. But the researchers have now developed a technique which can be used in real tissue, giving more accurate results.

"We have now developed an innovative system of analysis which can be applied to real cells, in ways which were not previously possible," Prof McCarron said."This research could help to shape the future of cardiovascular treatments."

Prof McCarron and Dr Richard Hartley, from the University of Glasgow, are using an advanced combination of targeted chemicals and microscopes to study the action of the calcium.

The chemicals have been developed to show what is happening in very specific parts of the cell, so changes in calcium can be looked at in detail through the microscope.

Prof McCarron said: "By doing this we are hoping to identify what is going wrong in some cases."

Scotland, which is heavily affected by high rates of heart disease, is leading the search for new treatments for conditions such as stroke and high blood pressure.

Last week it emerged that trials of stem cell treatment for patients who have suffered a stroke had started with a patient in Glasgow.

An international study, including a team from Glasgow University, also found that using radio waves to target nerves in the kidney could be used to treat high blood pressure.