EU-funded scientists have discovered that the presence of low levels of a type of antibody in the immune system increases the chance of having a stroke, one of the leading causes of death worldwide. The finding, published in the journal Stroke, signals hope the development of a vaccine that can activate the body's natural defences against the condition.

The breakthrough is part of CVDIMMUNE (Immunomodulation and autoimmunity in cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis), a project funded EUR 2.7 million under the 'Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health' Thematic area of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

In the past, researchers from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden (the project's coordinating institution) were able to prove that the presence of high levels of an antibody, known as anti-PC, in the human body's immune system reduced the risk of arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis occurs when plaque builds up on blood vessel walls. These plaques can rupture and develop into a blood clot. Atherosclerosis, which is a form of arteriosclerosis, is the most common cause of cardiovascular disease.

In the current study, the CVDIMMUNE team turned their attention to strokes, and discovered a similar outcome; people with low anti-PC levels were at an increased the risk of stroke. Lower levels of these natural antibodies, which could be the result of an unhealthy immune system, can therefore contribute to the onset of both arteriosclerosis and stroke.

The research, which involved a comparison study of 227 first-time stroke victims with 445 controls over a 13-year period (between 1985 and 1999), also demonstrated that the link between low anti-PC levels and stroke risk was particularly strong for women.

The results have opened the door to several possibilities. Measurements of anti-PC could now be used by doctors to identify those who are at greater risk of stroke, such as immunodeficient individuals. Likewise, the potential now exists for novel modes of treatment, such as immunotherapies.

Head of the study, Professor Johan Frostegård, said: "We're now examining the possibility of developing new immunological treatments for arteriosclerosis and stroke, either in the form of a vaccine to stimulate the immune defence or immunisation through the injection of antibodies."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15 million people across the world suffer a stroke ever year. One third of these people die, and an additional third are left with some form of permanent disability. High blood pressure is believed to be the main culprit, contributing to almost 13 million of these strokes.

In Europe, the WHO estimates that strokes are responsible, on average, for 650,000 deaths every year. Quit-smoking campaigns and efforts focused on lowering blood pressure have helped reduce the incidence of stroke in developed countries. Due to the advent of an ageing population, however, the threat of stroke remains high in these countries.

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