Acne drug could treat hardening of the arteries, study suggests

An acne drug could offer a potential treatment for a condition linked to dementia, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, a new study suggests.

A team of UK scientists, led by the University of Cambridge and King’s College London, said they have identified the cause of hardening of the arteries and found in animal tests that a widely-prescribed antibiotic could be an effective “cure”.

At present, there is no treatment for the condition, which is caused by a build-up of calcium deposits.

This stiffens the arteries, limiting the flow of blood around the body, and has been linked with the development of cardiovascular disease, as well as vascular dementia.

Professor Cathy Shanahan and Professor Melinda Duer, who co-led the study (Gabriella Bocchetti/ University of Cambridge)
Professor Cathy Shanahan and Professor Melinda Duer, who co-led the study (Gabriella Bocchetti/ University of Cambridge)

“It’s been 12 years of basic research to get to this point,” said Professor Melinda Duer, from the University of Cambridge.

“We set out with absolutely no expectation of finding a potential treatment – there is no treatment currently and nobody would have believed us if we had said at that point we were going to cure hardening of the arteries.”

The researchers identified that a molecule responsible for repairing DNA in cells, known as PAR, was behind the hardening of arteries, which happens to everyone as they age.

“This hardening, or biomineralisation, is essential for the production of bone, but in arteries it underlies a lot of cardiovascular disease and other diseases associated with ageing, like dementia,” said Professor Cathy Shanahan, from King’s College London.

“We wanted to find out what triggers the formation of calcium phosphate crystals, and why it seems to be concentrated around the collagen and elastin which makes up much of the artery wall.”

Using chemical analysis, the researchers found that PAR, which binds to calcium ions, is released from cells when they become stressed and die.

This occurs as a result of a DNA damage, which could be caused by a number of factors, for example smoking.

When PAR is released, it forms larger droplets of calcium, which stick to the artery walls, the researchers said.

This leads to the formation of crystals, hardening the arteries.

In a study using rats, the team found that minocycline – an antibiotic often used to treat acne – could prevent the build-up of calcium in the circulatory system.

The researchers expect to begin a trial of the drug in patients within the next 18 months.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, said: “Blood vessel calcification is a well-known risk factor for several heart and circulatory diseases, and can lead to high blood pressure and, ultimately, a life-threatening heart attack.

“Now, researchers have shown how calcification of the walls of blood vessels takes place, and how the process differs from normal bone formation.

“By doing so, they have been able to identify a potential treatment to reduce blood vessel calcification without any adverse effects on bone.

“This type of treatment would benefit many people, and we eagerly await the results of the anticipated clinical trials looking at whether this drug lives up to its early promise.”

The findings have been published in the journal Cell Reports.