Purpose of review: Although cardiovascular prevention has improved substantially, we still face the challenge of finding new targets to reduce the sequelae of atherosclerosis further. In this regard, optimizing the vasculoprotective effects of the vessel wall itself warrants intensive research. In particular, the endothelial glycocalyx, consisting of proteoglycans, glycoproteins and adsorbed plasma proteins, may play an essential role in protecting the vessel wall from atherosclerosis.
Recent developments: In this review, we will discuss the different vasculoprotective effects exerted by the endothelial glycocalyx, the factors that damage it, and the first preliminary data on the glycocalyx dimension in humans. Whereas most glycocalyx research has traditionally focused on the microvasculature, more recent data have underscored the importance of the glycocalyx in protecting the macrovasculature against pro-atherogenic insults. It has been shown that glycocalyx loss is accompanied by a wide array of unfavourable changes in both small and larger vessels. Pro-atherogenic stimuli increase the shedding of glycocalyx constituents into the circulation, contributing to the progressive loss of the vasculoprotective properties of the vessel wall. Novel techniques have facilitated reproducible measurements of systemic glycocalyx volume in humans. Consistent with experimental data, the volume of the human glycocalyx is also severely perturbed by exposure to atherogenic risk factors.
Summary: Cumulating evidence suggests that an intact glycocalyx protects the vessel wall, whereas disruption of the glycocalyx upon atherogenic stimuli increases vascular vulnerability for atherogenesis.