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Cardiovasc Res. 1999 Feb;41(2):480-8.

Role of smooth muscle cell death in advanced coronary primary lesions: implications for plaque instability.

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  • 1Department of Cardiology, University of Bonn, Germany.



Instability of coronary atheroma leads to the onset of acute coronary syndromes including myocardial infarction and death, as well as to the progression of the arteriosclerotic disease. As yet, the underlying factors and mechanisms causing plaque rupture are not completely understood. Since a low content of smooth muscle cells (SMCs) apparently plays a key role, the question points to the events leading to the loss of intimal SMCs.


We compared coronary atherectomy specimens from 25 patients with unstable angina to those from 25 patients with stable angina. Transmission electron microscopy was used to identify intimal cell population, to detect stage and cell type of apoptosis, and to differentiate between apoptosis and necrosis.


Plaques associated with unstable angina contained more macrophages/lymphocytes and significantly less SMCs (P = 0.01), compared with stable angina plaques. Specific cell death forms, apoptosis and necrosis, were present in all coronary atheroma. As key findings, both the proportion of SMCs undergoing apoptosis and the frequency of cytoplasmic remnants of apoptotic SMCs (matrix vesicles) were significantly increased in unstable versus stable angina lesions (P = 0.002 and P = 0.002). In addition, cellular necrosis was more frequent in the first coronary atheroma group (P = 0.02). Positive correlations were found between the frequency of apoptotic cells and necrosis (r = 0.41, P = 0.04), and that of matrix vesicles and necrosis (r = 0.63, P = 0.001) only in plaques with unstable angina, but not in those with stable angina.


Our data demonstrate that high cell death due to apoptosis and necrosis is a basic in situ feature found in advanced coronary primary lesions associated with unstable angina, possibly explaining their low density of (viable) SMCs. Thus, antagonization of intimal cell death should be considered in order to stabilize the intimal plaque texture of coronary atheroma with the ultimate goal to prevent plaque rupture.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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