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Circ Res. 2009 Feb 13;104(3):304-17. doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.108.188318.

Autophagy in atherosclerosis: a cell survival and death phenomenon with therapeutic potential.

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  • 1Division of Pharmacology, University of Antwerp, Universiteitsplein 1, B-2610 Antwerp, Belgium.


Autophagy is a reparative, life-sustaining process by which cytoplasmic components are sequestered in double-membrane vesicles and degraded on fusion with lysosomal compartments. A growing body of evidence suggests that autophagy is stimulated in advanced atherosclerotic plaques by oxidized lipids, inflammation, and metabolic stress conditions. However, despite the increasing interest in autophagy in various pathophysiological situations such as neurodegeneration, cancer, and cardiac myopathies, the process remains an underestimated and overlooked phenomenon in atherosclerosis. As a consequence, its role in plaque formation and stability is poorly understood. Most likely, autophagy safeguards plaque cells against cellular distress, in particular oxidative injury, by degrading damaged intracellular material. In this way, autophagy is antiapoptotic and contributes to cellular recovery in an adverse environment. An interesting observation is that basal autophagy can be intensified by specific drugs. Excessively stimulated autophagic activity is capable of destroying major proportions of the cytosol, leading finally to type II programmed cell death that lacks several hallmarks of apoptosis or necrosis. Because atherosclerosis is an inflammatory disorder of the arterial intima, pharmacological approaches could be developed to stabilize vulnerable, rupture-prone lesions through selective induction of macrophage autophagic death.

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