A new way of regenerating blood vessels could help prevent heart attacks and strokes, scientists believe.
The strategy involves activating supporting cells which play a key role in the construction of blood vessel walls.
Scientists used a natural chemical called fibroblast growth factor 9 (FGF9) to stimulate the support cells in mice.
"FGF9 seemed to 'awaken' the supporting cells and stimulated their wrapping around the otherwise fragile blood vessel wall," said Canadian researcher Matthew Frontini, from the University of Western Ontario.
Heart attacks and certain kinds of strokes occur when clogged arteries leave tissue starved of blood and oxygen.
The new approach involves helping the body to build new blood vessels to nourish the heart and brain.
Previous attempts at blood vessel regeneration, or "therapeutic angiogenesis" have focused on the endothelial cells that line artery walls rather than the support cells.
But they have met with poor success, generating new blood vessels that did not last long or function well.
The research is reported online today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
"Heart attacks and strokes are leading causes of death and disability," said co-author Professor Geoffrey Pickering, also from the University of Western Ontario.
"Coronary bypass surgery and stenting are important treatments but are not suitable for many individuals.
"Because of this, there has been considerable interest in recent years in developing biological strategies that promote the regeneration of a patient's own blood vessels."