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Plaque pathology and coronary thrombosis in the pathogenesis of acute coronary syndromes.

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  • 1Institute of Experimental Clinical Research, Aarhus University Hospital (SKS), Denmark.


Coronary atherosclerosis is by far the most frequent cause of ischemic heart disease and plaque disruption with superimposed thrombosis is the main cause of the acute coronary syndromes of unstable angina, myocardial infarction, and sudden coronary death. Therefore, for event-free survival, the vital question is not why atherosclerosis develops but rather why, after years of indolent growth, it suddenly becomes complicated by life-threatening thrombosis. Therefore, we have to focus on plaque composition and vulnerability to rupture and plaque thrombogenicity rather than on plaque size and stenosis severity. The risk for plaque disruption depends more on plaque vulnerability (plaque type) than on degree of stenosis (plaque size). Lipid-rich and soft plaques are more vulnerable and prone to rupture than collagen-rich and hard plaques. They are also highly thrombogenic after disruption because of high content of tissue factor. There seems to be three major determinants of a plaque's vulnerability to rupture: 1) the size and consistency of the lipid-rich atheromatous core, 2) the thickness of the fibrous cap covering the core, and 3) ongoing inflammation and repair processes within the fibrous cap. Lipid accumulation, cap thinning, lack of smooth muscle cells (smc), and macrophage-related inflammation destabilize plaques, making them vulnerable to rupture. In contrast, smc-related healing and repair processes stabilize plaques, protecting them against disruption. Plaque size or stenosis severity tell nothing about a plaque's vulnerability. Many vulnerable plaques are invisible angiographically due to their small size and compensatory vascular remodeling.

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