Atherosclerosis, a condition that causes arteries to thicken, is a risk factor for a number of diseases that as a group are the leading cause of death in the U.S. What it really means, why it happens, and why it matters is unclear, since nearly half of Americans are told they have it.

Understanding its progression and possible impact of fatty buildup in the arteries is important, as is calcification. A new pilot is geared toward learning where that calcification comes from, and if perhaps its origin is inside the arteries.

Texas Tech biologist Peter Keyel says, “The arteries are made up of cells, and on one side of them you have smooth muscle cells that can release these vesicles full of calcium that end up embedding in the artery. That drives some of the microcalcifications, but it doesn’t account for everything.

“There are potentially other sources, so my main research will focus on how the cells reseal their membranes after a hole is torn in them. What we think may be going on is membrane repair, but we don’t know a whole lot about how it works. One of the things we do know, though, when calcium comes into a cell, it causes the cell to send a signal to seal off the membrane.”

As the repair takes place, the membrane sheds small particles - vesicles - which carry annexin proteins that may contribute to the calcification process.