Statins mobilize endothelial progenitor cells, possibly promoting vasculogenesis


WESTPORT, CT (Reuters Health) – While statins are widely used to lower blood cholesterol levels, two reports indicate that they may also promote new blood vessel formation by augmenting the population of circulating endothelial progenitor cells. If confirmed, statins could one day be used to treat ischemic conditions such as stroke or coronary artery disease.

In one of the studies reported in the August issue of The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Dr. Jeffrey M. Isner, from St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston, and colleagues analyzed simvastatin's effects on endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs). Previous studies have shown these bone marrow-derived cells travel to sites of neovascularization and differentiate into mature endothelial cells.

The researchers found that simvastatin mobilizes EPCs from the bone marrow and thereby increases the circulating EPC pool. The enhanced response seemed to result from simvastatin's ability to activate EPC's Akt protein kinase, an enzyme that is known to augment the proliferation, migration, and survival of EPCs.

In the second paper, Dr. Stefanie Dimmeler, from the University of Frankfurt in Germany, and colleagues describe a similar study in which they found that atorvastatin, mevastatin or simvastatin can induce the differentiation of EPCs and increase their numbers in vitro and in vivo.

These researchers also found that an intact PI 3-kinase/Akt pathway was needed for statin-induced increases in EPC differentiation.

In a related editorial, Dr. Dario C. Altieri, from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, comments on the current findings and the possible clinical implications.

"Targeted localized angiogenesis…is a very hot topic and one could envision a number of clinical applications for diseases such as stroke or myocardial infarction," Dr. Altieri told Reuters Health. "It is somewhat surprising that cholesterol-lowering drugs, which have been around for a long time, seem to mobilize precursors of endothelial cells from the bone marrow," he stated.

Vascular endothelial growth factor is also a very potent stimulator of EPCs, but it is contraindicated in cancer patients due to its ability to promote tumor angiogenesis, Dr. Altieri said. "The current findings are important because they show that statins, which are generally considered safe, also stimulate EPCs," he added. "Still, further preclinical studies will probably be needed to convince many investigators that statins do not facilitate cancer growth," he said.

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