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PLoS One. 2011;6(7):e21803. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021803. Epub 2011 Jul 21.

Ligation of macrophage Fcγ receptors recapitulates the gene expression pattern of vulnerable human carotid plaques.

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Center for Cell Biology and Cancer Research, Albany Medical College, Albany, New York, United States of America.


Stroke is a leading cause of death in the United States. As ∼60% of strokes result from carotid plaque rupture, elucidating the mechanisms that underlie vulnerability is critical for therapeutic intervention. We tested the hypothesis that stable and vulnerable human plaques differentially express genes associated with matrix degradation. Examination established that femoral, and the distal region of carotid, plaques were histologically stable while the proximal carotid plaque regions were vulnerable. Quantitative RT-PCR was used to compare expression of 22 genes among these tissues. Distal carotid and femoral gene expression was not significantly different, permitting the distal carotid segments to be used as a paired control for their corresponding proximal regions. Analysis of the paired plaques revealed differences in 16 genes that impact plaque stability: matrix metalloproteinases (MMP, higher in vulnerable), MMP modulators (inhibitors: lower, activators: higher in vulnerable), activating Fc receptors (FcγR, higher in vulnerable) and FcγR signaling molecules (higher in vulnerable). Surprisingly, the relative expression of smooth muscle cell and macrophage markers in the three plaque types was not significantly different, suggesting that macrophage distribution and/or activation state correlates with (in)stability. Immunohistochemistry revealed that macrophages and smooth muscle cells localize to distinct and non-overlapping regions in all plaques. MMP protein localized to macrophage-rich regions. In vitro, treatment of macrophages with immune complexes, but not oxidized low density lipoprotein, C-reactive protein, or TNF-α, induced a gene expression profile similar to that of the vulnerable plaques. That ligation of FcγR recapitulates the pattern of gene expression in vulnerable plaques suggests that the FcγR → macrophage activation pathway may play a greater role in human plaque vulnerability than previously appreciated.

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