It’s a coincidence that underlines Scotland’s status as a major global hub for medical research - two separate scientific teams working in Glasgow and Edinburgh recently making major breakthroughs regarding the diagnosis and treatment of high blood pressure.

Last week, researchers at the University of Glasgow announced the discovery of a small piece of genetic material that could hold the key to more efficient diagnosis and treatment of the condition – and also shed light on the mystery of why arteries of those affected often become stiff and inflexible.

The scientists pinpointed a piece of material called a micro-RNA – known as miR-214 - which makes white blood cells called T-cells move to the fatty tissue around arteries. These T-cells cause inflammation, causing the artery structure to become damaged and increasing stiffness.

HeraldScotland:

This work is the first to link a cascade of damaging events linked to blood pressure to higher levels of miR-214 and is a global first.

The Glasgow discovery coincides with another recent Scottish breakthrough on the causes of high blood pressure, where researchers at the University of Edinburgh revealed that specialised white blood cells – macrophages - that are central to the body’s immune system ‘eat’ molecules of a powerful hormone known as endothelin.

By regulating endothelin levels in the body, these white blood cells help blood vessels relax, significantly lowering blood pressure – a process which could now lead to new treatments for the condition, which affects more than 12 million people in the UK. 

If discovered in patient blood samples, this molecule could also give doctors an early warning of artery problems and help people get treatment more quickly.

The scientists found that lowering levels of macrophages increased blood pressure in mice fed on a high salt diet. When the macrophage level returned to normal,their blood pressure also normalised. 

Known medically as hypertension, high blood pressure is a leading cause of life-threatening conditions including heart attack, kidney disease and stroke, and is often referred to as ‘the silent killer’ due to a lack of obvious symptoms.

Professor Tomasz Guzik and Dr Ryszard Nosalski at the University of Glasgow led the research for the new paper - T Cell-Derived miRNA-214 Mediates Perivascular Fibrosis in Hypertension - which was published in the journal Circulation Research.

Professor Guzik, who is Regius Chair of Physiology and Cardiovascular Pathobiology at the University’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, said: “In our study we used several approaches to identify how this small molecule of microRNA that is present in white blood cells can direct cells and cause inflammation.

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Professor Tomasz Guzik

“This is responsible, at least in part, for the process of accelerated vascular ageing characterised by stiffer vessels. 

“We have shown this not only in disease models but also provided proof of concept in patients with hypertension. These studies provide important insights how hypertension interacts with inflammation.” 

Professor Matthew Bailey, University of Edinburgh, said: “In the UK, an estimated 6.8 million people are living with undiagnosed high blood pressure. 

“This causes damage to the heart and blood vessels, putting you at risk of a potentially fatal heart attack or stroke. But we still don’t fully understand all the mechanisms that lead to high blood pressure. 

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“This study shows for the first time that macrophages – a type of cell that helps regulate our immune responses – can be involved in the control of blood pressure. 

“More research is obviously required but these cells could be a new target for new drugs to treat the condition.”

“Hypertension affects millions of people across the globe, including 70 per cent of people over 70. Our discovery sheds light on risk factors, and crucially, opens routes to investigate new drugs that could help patients. Our next steps will 
be to investigate the role of macrophages in people living with hypertension.”

University's rich vein of talent is recognised

TWO Glasgow-based contributors to hypertension research are making waves in their respective fields – with one receiving a prestigious international award and the other joining the senior research team at the British Heart Foundation. 

Professor Rhian Touyz, director of Glasgow University’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, was recently given the American Heart Association Council on Hypertension’s award of research excellence.

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The cardiovascular scientist achieved the honour for her work on molecular mechanisms and the vascular biology of hypertension. 

She said: “I am delighted and truly humbled to be receiving this important award. This is amongst the most significant events in my professional career.

“I work with outstanding fellows and collaborators and I am incredibly honoured to lead all the excellent scientists at the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow. 

“The hypertension research taking place here is world-leading and I am proud to be a part of it.” And recently, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has announced the appointment of Professor James Leiper from the University of Glasgow as an Associate Medical Director for Research.

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Professor Leiper joined the senior research team at the BHF last month, a body which oversees funding of around £100 million in research grants each year.

Prior to his move to Glasgow, Professor Leiper undertook internationally leading research in the field of vascular physiology and his work had led to the creation of a new biotechnology company focussed on the development of new medicines for sepsis.

Professor Leiper will be based at the BHF for most of the week but will continue his research at the University of Glasgow.

He said: “I am delighted to be taking up the role of Associate Medical Director at the BHF. The BHF provides outstanding support for the millions of UK patients suffering from cardiovascular disease and for the UK cardiovascular research community. It is an honour to join the BHF team that works tirelessly to find new treatments and cures for cardiovascular disease.”

Professor Rhian Touyz, Director of the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences (ICAMS) at the University of Glasgow, said: “We are very proud to have a member of ICAMS take on this very prestigious and important role. 

“James is an outstanding leader and scientist who epitomises everything that the BHF stands for.  I know that James will do an outstanding job and I am thrilled that he will continue his exciting research in Glasgow.”