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Miranda van Eck inaugural lecture: detergent tablets for clean, fat-free blood vessels

In her inaugural lecture on 11 September, Miranda van Eck, Professor of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Therapeutics, addressed her research related to developing medications to keep our blood vessels clean.

Cholesterol build-up

Miranda van Eck

Van Eck conducts research on atherosclerosis at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research (LACDR). Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is the most important cause of many cardiovascular illnesses. This condition causes the blood vessels to become constricted due to an accumulation of cholesterol in inflammatory cells (macrophages), which can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke. Through her research, Van Eck hopes to find ways to reduce these fatty deposits in the blood vessels.

Leads for new medications

‘Although we’re making headway towards driving down cardiovascular diseases, the number of people who die as a result of them every day is still far too high. With women it is even the number 1 cause of death,’ says Van Eck. That is why in her research she identifies proteins that play a role in the development of atherosclerosis and that can be targeted by medicines. These proteins provide leads for the development of new medications.

Transporting cholesterol

One of the things she conducted research on, together with fellow researchers, was a protein that functions as an unloading dock for HDL, commonly called ‘good cholesterol’. HDL acts as a sort of lorry, transporting cholesterol from the blood vessel wall to the liver, after which it can be excreted by the body. This research made clear why an increase in the amount of HDL cholesterol in the body doesn’t always have a therapeutic effect. ‘You can increase the load the lorries are carrying, but if they don’t do a good job at unloading, that doesn’t really help,’ Van Eck explained.

Rinsing the blood vessels clean

Van Eck hopes that through her research she will be able to contribute to the development of ‘detergent tablets’ like to the ones we use in our dishwashers: medications that make the blood vessels clean again and remove atherosclerotic plaques (the accumulated cholesterol and macrophages). For years researchers did not think this was possible, but recent research in experimental models has shown that these plaques could be eliminated within three days. With the help of a Vici grant from the NWO, van Eck wants to explore what factors play a role in this process.

Wrapped in little balls of fat

In order to limit the side effects, it is important to aim the medicines very specifically to reach the atherosclerotic plaques. Van Eck is investigating whether this can be done by packaging the medications in little balls of fat that are specifically absorbed by the macrophages. The initial results are promising. With her research, Van Eck wants to further develop this new field of research, which is set to benefit researchers directly involved in the creation of new medications.

Miranda van Eck is also the programme director for Leiden University’s degree programme in Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences.

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