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New Insights into Muscle Adaptation to Exercise

Armen Hareyan's picture

DURHAM, N.C. - Duke University Medical Center researchers have identified the skeletal muscle changes that occur in response to endurance exercise and have better defined the role of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in creating new blood vessels, a process known as angiogenesis.

VEGF is a protein known to trigger blood vessel growth by activating numerous genes involved in angiogenesis.

The researchers' new insights could provide a roadmap for medical investigators as they seek to use VEGF in treating human conditions characterized by lack of adequate blood flow, such as coronary artery disease or peripheral arterial disease.

Using mice as animal models, the researchers found that exercise initially stimulates the production of VEGF, which then leads to an increase in the number of capillaries within a specific muscle fiber type, ultimately leading to an anaerobic to aerobic change in the muscle fibers supplied by those vessels. The VEGF gene produces a protein that is known to trigger blood vessel growth.

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The results of the Duke experiments were presented by cardiologist Richard Waters, M.D., Nov. 8, 2004, at the American Heart Association's annual scientific sessions in New Orleans.

"It is known that exercise can improve the symptoms of peripheral arterial disease in humans and it has been assumed that angiogenesis played a role in this improvement," Waters said. "However, the clinical angiogenesis trials to date utilizing VEGF have been marginally successful and largely disappointing, so we felt it would be better at this point to return to animal studies in an attempt to better understand the angiogenic process."

The Duke team performed their experiments using a mouse model of voluntary exercise. This experimental approach is important, they explained, because most skeletal muscle adaptation studies utilize electrical stimulation of the muscle, which is much less physiologic and does not as closely mimic what would be expected in human exercise.

When placed in the dark with a running wheel, mice will instinctively run, the researchers said. In the Duke experiments, 41 out of 42 mice "ran" up to seven miles each night. At regular intervals over a 28-day period, the researchers then performed detailed analysis of capillary growth and the subsequent changes in muscle fiber type and compared these findings to sedentary mice.

Mammalian muscle is generally made up of two different fiber types