Scientists at UNC School of Medicine recently made a breakthrough that could someday reduce the risk of deep-vein thrombosis, as well as the risks caused by taking blood thinners.

“Science is a slow process, actually” says Dr. Alisa Wolberg, an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UNC School of Medicine. “There are fewer ‘Eureka’ moments than I wish we had. We probably discovered that factor XIII was playing a role – I guess about a year-and-a-half ago.”

She’s talking about factor XIII, an enzyme that could be the key to revolutionizing the treatment and prevention of deep vein thrombosis.

Between 60,000 and 100,000 people in the U.S. die of deep vein thrombosis. or the related pulmonary embolism. every year.

People with deep vein thrombosis suffer from large clots that form inside blood vessels, usually in the legs. They can be caused by long periods of restricted movement, cancer, genetics, pregnancy, or taking oral contraceptives.

If a clot travels through the bloodstream to obstruct an artery in the lungs, the resulting pulmonary embolism can be fatal.

Many patients at risk for DVT rely on blood thinners that can cause side effects, including a small but scary risk of excessive bleeding.

Researchers in Dr. Wolberg’s lab have been working for several years on a project to better understand venous thrombosis.

They’ve discovered that lab mice incapable of producing the enzyme factor XIII formed clots that were half the size of those formed by normal mice.

“Initially we were interested in looking at how fibrinogen talks to leukocytes – white blood cells – and participates in thrombosis” says Wolberg. “And in the course of doing those experiments, we discovered that Factor XIII was actually having the effect that we were seeing in our models. And at that point, we began really investigating how factor XIII was having that effect.”

The discovery opens up the possibility of a new drug that would reduce the production of factor XIII in the body, thus reducing the risks caused by blood clots, and the necessity of taking blood thinners.

Wolberg says she doesn’t know how long it will take for this discovery to result in a new prescription drug on the market. She says that process generally takes about 10 years.

“That’s the truly humbling question,” says Wolberg. “Probably, a while, still. We have a lot to understand about the mechanism of action. Once we understand that, then we have to be very selective and careful about choosing a molecule that appropriately inhibits Factor XIII activity without causing any other effects that we may or may not expect.”

The findings in Wolberg’s lab were recently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, with Wolberg as senior author.