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Circulation. 2019 Apr 23;139(17):2032-2048. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.037166.

Lysed Erythrocyte Membranes Promote Vascular Calcification.

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Department of Cardiology (D.N.T., G.C., M.P., D.K., P.S., I.D., P.K., S.V.K.), Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece.
Center for Cardiology, Cardiology I (R.G., A.H., E.B., I.D., T.M., K.S.), University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany.
Cardiothoracic Surgery Department (D.M., F.K.), Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece.
Department of Pathology (A.G.), Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece.
Department of Vascular Surgery (G.S.G., C.A.), Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece.
Center for Thrombosis and Hemostasis (S.V.K.), University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany.



Intraplaque hemorrhage promotes atherosclerosis progression, and erythrocytes may contribute to this process. In this study we examined the effects of red blood cells on smooth muscle cell mineralization and vascular calcification and the possible mechanisms involved.


Erythrocytes were isolated from human and murine whole blood. Intact and lysed erythrocytes and their membrane fraction or specific erythrocyte components were examined in vitro using diverse calcification assays, ex vivo by using the murine aortic ring calcification model, and in vivo after murine erythrocyte membrane injection into neointimal lesions of hypercholesterolemic apolipoprotein E-deficient mice. Vascular tissues (aortic valves, atherosclerotic carotid artery specimens, abdominal aortic aneurysms) were obtained from patients undergoing surgery.


The membrane fraction of lysed, but not intact human erythrocytes promoted mineralization of human arterial smooth muscle cells in culture, as shown by Alizarin red and van Kossa stain and increased alkaline phosphatase activity, and by increased expression of osteoblast-specific transcription factors (eg, runt-related transcription factor 2, osterix) and differentiation markers (eg, osteopontin, osteocalcin, and osterix). Erythrocyte membranes dose-dependently enhanced calcification in murine aortic rings, and extravasated CD235a-positive erythrocytes or Perl iron-positive signals colocalized with calcified areas or osteoblast-like cells in human vascular lesions. Mechanistically, the osteoinductive activity of lysed erythrocytes was localized to their membrane fraction, did not involve membrane lipids, heme, or iron, and was enhanced after removal of the nitric oxide (NO) scavenger hemoglobin. Lysed erythrocyte membranes enhanced calcification to a similar extent as the NO donor diethylenetriamine-NO, and their osteoinductive effects could be further augmented by arginase-1 inhibition (indirectly increasing NO bioavailability). However, the osteoinductive effects of erythrocyte membranes were reduced in human arterial smooth muscle cells treated with the NO scavenger 2-phenyl-4,4,5,5-tetramethylimidazoline-1-oxyl 3-oxide or following inhibition of NO synthase or the NO receptor soluble guanylate cyclase. Erythrocytes isolated from endothelial NO synthase-deficient mice exhibited a reduced potency to promote calcification in the aortic ring assay and after injection into murine vascular lesions.


Our findings in cells, genetically modified mice, and human vascular specimens suggest that intraplaque hemorrhage with erythrocyte extravasation and lysis promotes osteoblastic differentiation of smooth muscle cells and vascular lesion calcification, and also support a role for erythrocyte-derived NO.


atherosclerosis; erythrocytes; hemorrhage; smooth muscle, myocytes; vascular calcification

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