Scientists believe that the need for heart surgery may be reduced by blocking a molecule that appears to trigger damage to the walls of arteries.
A study from Imperial College London, published in the journal Circulation, revealed that a receptor molecule called TLR-2 switches immune cells into 'attack' mode so that they protect the body.
However, the researchers discovered that the molecule was unusually active in carotid artery plaques taken from the necks of people who had suffered a stroke.
By blocking TLR-2 in lab tests, they were able to stop cells from making the molecules that cause inflammation.
Dr Claudia Monaco, from Imperial College London's Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology and Vascular Surgery, commented: "Developing new ways to prevent heart attacks and strokes by treating atherosclerosis will help improve people's quality of life.
"If we can find a way to successfully block these receptors in people without reducing their ability to fight off infection, we could potentially develop a treatment for atherosclerosis."
Atherosclerosis is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is the single largest cause of death in the UK, according to the British Heart Foundation.
Preventative measures include exercising, eating healthily and not smoking, while treatments include anti-platelet medicine such as aspirin, blood pressure medication, cholesterol-lowering drugs and heart surgery.