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Am J Pathol. 1989 Mar;134(3):705-17.

The lipid-rich core region of human atherosclerotic fibrous plaques. Prevalence of small lipid droplets and vesicles by electron microscopy.

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Department of Medicine and Cell Biology, Baylor College of Medicine, Methodist Hospital, Houston, Texas 77030.


Abundant extracellular lipid deposits are associated with cell necrosis and tissue weakening in the core region of human atherosclerotic fibrous plaques. The ultrastructural morphology of the core region, previously undefined because of lipid extraction artifacts, was studied with the aid of new osmium-thiocarbohydrazide-osmium and osmium-tannic acid-paraphenylenediamine sequences for tissue processing. Small droplets of neutral lipid (30 to 400 nm profile diameter) and lipid vesicles with aqueous centers accounted for more than 90% of the area occupied by lipid-rich structures in the core region. No foam cells were present. Cholesterol crystals, lipid droplets of a size similar to those in foam cells (0.4 to 6 mu), and larger neutral lipid deposits (greater than 6 mu) together occupied less than 10% of the total area of lipid structures. Abundant lipid vesicles were associated with the nearby presence of cholesterol crystals, whereas small lipid droplets were predominant in areas without crystals. Many droplets had surface defects in the form of pits and vesicular blebs. These morphologic findings are explained most concisely by postulating direct accumulation of extracellular lipid from interstitial lipoproteins as a major process in core region formation. Moreover, a dynamic state of ongoing physical/metabolic transformation of extracellular lipid deposits is suggested.

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