About seven million people in the UK are living with heart and circulatory problems such as heart disease and atrial fibrillation or have had a heart attack or stroke.
Damaged blood vessels lie at the heart of these conditions and scientists believe that growing and repairing them represents their best chance of treating them.
They have had little success so far but the prospect has become considerably more likely after researchers discovered stem cells in the blood stream of embryos that help to build blood vessels.
This is a landmark finding that changes scientific understanding of how blood vessels are made, said the researchers, from University College London.
They are confident they can use these cells – known as erythromyeloid progenitors (EMPs) – as the basis for a treatment to repair damaged blood vessels and grow new ones in adults.
However, it is likely to be years before any drug becomes available since much research, development and safety tests are still needed.
“To find that EMPs generate endothelial cells for growing new blood vessels in the foetus was unexpected and is hugely exciting,” said Professor Christiana Ruhrberg, of UCL.
Professor Metin Avkiran, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, added:“These findings shed important new light on our understanding of the origin of growing blood vessels.”
“They could pave the way to new discoveries in regenerative medicine and allow scientists in the future to grow new blood vessels and repair those that are damaged in many forms of heart and circulatory disease,” he added.
The research was funded by the British Heart Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and The Medical Research Council and is published in the journal Nature.