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Cardiovasc Res. 2000 Feb;45(3):736-46.

Apoptosis in atherosclerosis: beneficial or detrimental?

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  • 1Department of Pathology, A.Z. Middelheim, Antwerp, Belgium.


Several groups have demonstrated apoptotic cell death in atherosclerotic plaques. The significance of apoptosis in atherosclerosis depends on the stage of the plaque, localization and the cell types involved. Both macrophages and smooth muscle cells undergo apoptosis in atherosclerotic plaques. Apoptosis of macrophages is mainly present in regions showing signs of DNA synthesis/repair. Smooth muscle cell apoptosis is mainly present in less cellular regions and is not associated with DNA synthesis/repair. Even in early stages of atherosclerosis smooth muscle cells become susceptible to undergoing apoptosis since they increase different pro-apoptotic factors. Moreover, recent data indicate that smooth muscle cells may be killed by activated macrophages. The loss of the smooth muscle cells can be detrimental for plaque stability since most of the interstitial collagen fibers, which are important for the tensile strength of the fibrous cap, are produced by SMC. Apoptosis of macrophages could be beneficial for plaque stability if apoptotic bodies are removed. Apoptotic cells that are not scavenged in the plaque activate thrombin which could further induce intraplaque thrombosis. It can be concluded that apoptosis in the primary atherosclerosis is detrimental since it could lead to plaque rupture and thrombosis. Recent data of our group indicate that apoptosis decreases after lipid lowering which could be important in our understanding of the cell biology of plaque stabilization.

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