Macrophage activation in atherosclerosis: pathogenesis and pharmacology of plaque rupture

Curr Vasc Pharmacol. 2005 Jan;3(1):63-8. doi: 10.2174/1570161052773861.


Atherosclerosis is still an important disease. It accounts for 39% of deaths in the U.K. and 12 million U.S citizens have atherosclerosis-associated disease. Atherosclerosis may exert clinical effects by slow narrowing, producing stable angina or dramatic rupture, producing acute coronary syndromes such as unstable angina or myocardial infarction and death. Macrophages are abundant in ruptured atherosclerotic plaques. Macrophages are innate immune effectors, i.e. they are activated without antigenic specificity. This may make them liable to indiscriminate tissue damage, since they are less selective than lymphocytes. Macrophages are recruited and activated by many signals and have an impressive armamentarium of molecules to promote tissue damage. Macrophage recruitment by abnormal endothelium over developing atherosclerotic plaques, is aided by endothelial expression of adhesion molecules (ICAM-1, VCAM, ELAM). Use of knockout mice has implicated the chemoattractant cytokine (chemokine) MCP-1 in attracting macrophage recruitment in atherosclerosis. Macrophage-activation stimuli associated with atherosclerotic risk factors include oxidised low density lipoprotein (oxLDL, "bad cholesterol"), advanced glycosylation end products (AGEs) of diabetes, angiotensin II and endothelin. Substantial work has clarified macrophage activation by OxLDL via macrophage scavenger receptors (MSRs), especially MSRA and CD36. Activated macrophages express effector molecules that kill cells and degrade extracellular matrix. These include Fas-L and nitric oxide (NO). Macrophage NO is derived from the high output inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) pathway and upregulates vascular smooth muscle (VSMC) cell surface Fas, priming them for apoptosis. Activated macrophages express surface Fas-L, similar to cytotoxic T-lymphocytes and natural killer cells. Since VSMCs promote plaque stability, VSMC apoptosis may promote plaque rupture. Macrophages express multiple metalloproteinases (e.g. stromelysin) and serine proteases (e.g. urokinase) that degrade the extracellular matrix, weakening the plaque and making it rupture prone. Macrophages secrete numerous other effectors including reactive oxygen species, eicosanoids, tumour necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-1. Macrophage-derived transforming growth factor beta promotes fibrosis. Existing cardiovascular treatments including angiotensin II receptor antagonists and angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, aspirin, cholesterol reduction agents especially statins may inhibit macrophages. The interaction of NO-donors with macrophages and apoptosis is complex and bifunctional. Traditional anti-inflammatory agents such as glucocorticoids and cyclophosphamide have very serious side effects and are probably inappropriate. Novel anti-inflammatory agents e.g. new immunosuppressives and anti-TNF therapy may have an improved cost-benefit ratio.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carotid Stenosis / physiopathology*
  • Coronary Artery Disease / diagnosis
  • Coronary Artery Disease / epidemiology
  • Coronary Artery Disease / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Macrophage Activation / drug effects
  • Macrophage Activation / physiology*
  • Rupture, Spontaneous / etiology*
  • Rupture, Spontaneous / physiopathology