Virus spurs high blood pressure in research

Provocative new research suggests that a common virus might play a role in high blood pressure.

WASHINGTON — Provocative new research suggests that a common virus might play a role in high blood pressure.

The work, by Harvard scientists, so far is only in mice — and the usually symptomless infection is so widespread that proving an effect in people will be tough.

Still, it’s the latest clue that infections may somehow affect a number of the factors that lead to heart disease, from stiffening arteries to obesity.

“There’s likely to be considerable skepticism about this in the medical profession,” acknowledged lead researcher Dr. Clyde Crumpacker, an infectious disease specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. But, “what we would postulate is yes, there can be persistent infection of blood vessels that could be leading to high blood pressure.”

At issue is cytomegalovirus, or CMV. More than half of U.S. adults are infected by age 40, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a lifelong infection but the vast majority will never even know they have it.

Yet CMV causes serious problems for select groups: Women infected during pregnancy sometimes pass the virus to their fetuses, and 8,000 infants a year suffer disabilities including mental impairments and hearing or vision loss as a result. Riskier in people with weak immune systems, CMV also causes a type of blindness in AIDS patients and has been linked to problems in heart transplant recipients.

For the new study, Crumpacker teamed with cardiologists who could do a neat trick: thread tiny tubes directly into a vital neck artery of mice, to measure exactly what happened to their blood pressure.

Crumpacker started with healthy mice, some fed a normal rodent diet and others a high-cholesterol diet for a month. Then he injected CMV into the abdominal cavities of half of each group. A few weeks later, blood pressure had jumped among all the CMV-infected mice, but not among their uninfected counterparts, Crumpacker reported Thursday.

Blood pressure jumped the most in mice given a high-cholesterol diet — and a few even were developing artery plaques, he wrote in the journal PLoS Pathogens, a publication of the Public Library of Science.

Peering into the rodents’ carotid arteries, the researchers found the CMV was infecting the blood vessels’ lining. Heart disease is linked with a low-level artery inflammation, and three different inflammatory molecules were found in the infected mice.

Delving deeper, Crumpacker then infected both mouse and human cells in lab dishes and found that CMV spurred increased production of an enzyme called renin, known to activate a molecular pathway that can lead to high blood pressure.

Nearly one in three adult Americans, or 72 million people, and almost one billion people worldwide have high blood pressure. It’s a leading cause of heart disease and strokes. Poor diet and lack of exercise are key risk factors, but doctors don’t understand all of the underlying triggers of hypertension — including why some couch potatoes never get it and some thin, fit people do.

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