Background: Work from our laboratory has proven that increased titers of anti-heat shock protein 60 (HSP60) antibodies are associated with atherosclerosis and that HSP60-reactive T-cells are present in atherosclerotic lesions. Recent studies from others demonstrated that HSP60 directly activates endothelial cells and macrophages.
Methods and results: To explore the possibility that HSP60 exists in the circulation, where it could exert its functions, we performed a population-based study with 826 subjects aged 40 to 79 years. The following items were measured in all participants: serum soluble HSP60 (sHSP60); anti-Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide; anti-HSP65, anti-Chlamydia and anti-Helicobacter pylori antibodies; and a variety of acute phase reactants (C-reactive protein, alpha(1)-antitrypsin, and ceruloplasmin) and markers of systemic inflammation. Carotid atherosclerosis was assessed twice (1990 and 1995), and 15 other risk factors were evaluated. Our data show that levels of sHSP60 were significantly elevated in subjects with prevalent/incident carotid atherosclerosis and that these levels were correlated with common carotid artery intima/media thickness. Multiple logistic regression analysis documented these associations as independent of age, sex, and other risk factors. Interestingly, sHSP60 was also correlated with anti-lipopolysaccharide, anti-Chlamydia and anti-HSP60 antibodies, various markers of inflammation, and the presence of chronic infections. The risk of atherosclerosis associated with high sHSP60 levels was amplified when subjects had clinical and/or laboratory evidence of chronic infections.
Conclusions: Our data provide the first evidence of a strong correlation between sHSP60 and atherosclerosis, suggesting that sHSP60 may play important roles in activating vascular cells and the immune system during the development of atherosclerosis.