The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Diabetes drug has potential to treat hardened arteries

Scientists determine processes by which metformin therapy can protect against calcification of cells in blood vessel walls.

A commonly used, effective diabetes treatment may also be useful in treating hardening of the arteries in people, according to research.

A study by scientists at the Roslin Institute, which is part of the Dick Vet, and University of Edinburgh medical experts has determined the biological process by which the drug, metformin, is able to protect blood vessel cells against calcification of the arteries, a symptom of many cardiovascular conditions.

Further research will investigate whether the therapy could be used to treat cardiovascular diseases such as calcific aortic valve disease.

Biological mechanisms

The team’s study followed previous research that showed that metformin can alleviate calcification in arteries, and sought to uncover the processes involved.

They took cells from blood vessel walls, known as vascular smooth muscle cells, in mice and treated these with metformin, and found that hardened deposits were much less likely to form.

In addition, cells treated with metformin showed an increase in autophagy – a process in which the body cleans out damaged cells.

Researchers also examined plaques – calcified cell deposits – from artery tissue donated by people with diabetes who were undergoing surgery.

Chemical analysis of these plaques identified key proteins associated with autophagy close to the sites of calcification on artery walls, indicating that autophagy was likely to have occurred.

The study, published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology, is the first to confirm metformin’s protective effects against the calcification of blood vessel cells through the biological process of autophagy.

Our work shows for the first time the processes that enable metformin to protect against vascular calcification by inducing autophagy – the body’s removal of damaged cells. In the past two decades, metformin has become a mainstay of type 2 diabetes management - it is time-tested, proven, has good efficacy, a good safety profile and is inexpensive. Our results suggest that metformin may now also offer a viable new treatment for calcification of the arteries.

Dr Vicky MacRaeRoslin Institute

Related links

Scientific publication

Protein has crucial role in hardening of arteries

Dr Vicky MacRae on bone formation and calcified arteries

About the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence in clinical activity, teaching and research. Our purpose-built campus, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pentland Hills Regional Park, is home to more than eight hundred staff and almost fourteen hundred students, all of whom contribute to our exceptional community ethos.    

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The Roslin Innovation Centre   

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Easter Bush Pathology   

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