Researchers led by the University of Edinburgh have pinpointed cells in the immune system that could be key to tackling high blood pressure.

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, was funded by the British Heart Foundation and revealed a new role for specialised white blood cells – known as macrophages – that are central to the body’s immune system, discovering that macrophages scavenge for and ‘eat’ molecules of a powerful hormone known as endothelin.

There results showed that lowering levels of macrophages increased blood pressure in mice fed a high salt diet. When the macrophage level returned to normal, blood pressure also normalised.

Professor Matthew Bailey, chair in renal physiology at the University of Edinburgh’s British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence, who led the study, said: “Hypertension affects millions of people across the globe, including 70% of people over 70.

“Our discovery sheds light on risk factors, and crucially, opens routes to investigate new drugs that could help patients. Our next steps will be to investigate the role of macrophages in people living with hypertension.”

The findings could help spot people most at risk of developing hypertension. The study could open avenues to improve current therapies, although researchers caution that further human studies are needed.

The findings also shed light on current treatments that could increase risk of the disorder, which affects more than 12 million people in the UK.

High blood pressure – or hypertension – is a leading cause of life-threatening conditions including heart attack, kidney disease and stroke.