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Chlamydia could cause chronic heart disease

Society For General Microbiology : 04 April, 2006  (New Product)
A common bacterium best known for sore throats and bronchitis may play a role in heart disease and strokes, according to detective work by Washington-based pathobiologists announced at the Society for General Microbiology's 158th Meeting at the University of Warwick, UK.
Professor Lee Ann Campbell and colleagues from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, used a wide range of evidence to show that the bugs are present when the heart disease atherosclerosis builds up. This points to Chlamydia pneumoniae as a contributing factor to the leading killer disease in the western world.

Early studies had found antibodies against C. pneumoniae associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and heart disease.

'We looked at arterial tissues from samples with atherosclerotic lesions,' says Prof Campbell. 'Over half of these were positive for C. pneumoniae. In contrast, the organism was not found in normal arterial tissue samples'.

The scientists were also able to isolate the bacteria from inside the cells of the plaques, called atheromatous tissue, which narrow and thicken patients' artery walls, restricting the blood flow.

But this still was not enough evidence to lay the blame firmly on chlamydia. The researchers also needed to find a mechanism for the bacteria to cause the problem. Their laboratory studies, and studies by other groups, demonstrated the biological plausibility that pneumonia infections could contribute to atherosclerotic plaque formation.

Finally, studies by Professor Campbell's group and others looked at animal models and demonstrated that the plaques form quicker during chlamydia infections, that cells in the artery walls stop functioning properly, and that plaques become destabilised, leading to the possibility of pieces breaking off into the bloodstream and triggering a stroke or heart attack.

The four lines of evidence taken together are compelling, leading the Washington team to believe that they have found a contributing culprit. The next step is to look at treatments.

'A few of the early small clinical trials that were tried in people using antibiotics to see if they could prevent heart problems were promising,' says Prof Campbell. 'However, none of the three recent large scale US trials which looked at secondary prevention demonstrated a long term benefit from antibiotic treatment'.

Long lasting Chlamydia infections are notoriously difficult to treat, so if the bacteria are indeed one of the main causes of atherosclerosis, which leads in turn to heart disease, then medical scientists will need to go back to basic studies. They must find new drug targets to kill the bacteria, earlier intervention for their treatment.
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