New research suggests that heart disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the inflammation response in the body is triggered.
Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology said that findings may bolster the possibility of developing a vaccine against the disease that blocks the inflammatory response.
According to North County Times, most research on heart disease, or arteriosclerosis, has focused on the role of cholesterol in hardening the arteries and increasing the heart attack risk.
This study adds to mounting evidence that heart disease is actually an autoimmune response.
Researchers said that they found a specific cell that is responsible for the attack on the artery wall using the deadly combination of inflammation and plaque.
The CD4 T cells begin to attack the wall when they sense a build-up of plaque, reported NBC San Diego.
More from GlobalPost: Shift work linked to increased risk of heart attack, stroke
Discovering how this mechanism works brings researchers many steps closer to developing a vaccine that could stop that reaction by making antigen-presenting cells unrecognizable.
This would in turn stop the inflammation response that might lead to a heart attack.
Study authors said that a vaccine would take years to develop but that the current results offer a big leap forward.
“If successful, a tolerogenic vaccine could stop the inflammation component of heart disease,” study leader Klaus Ley said in a statement.
“This could probably be used in conjunction with the statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) that have already taken a significant chunk out of the numbers of people with heart disease.”
With a combination of treatments, the researchers believe, people could one day significantly reduce their risk of developing heart disease.
Heart disease remains the number one killer in the developed world.
The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.