Background and purpose: The simplistic view of atherosclerosis as a disorder of pathological lipid deposition has been redefined by the more complex concept of an ongoing inflammatory response.
Summary of review: Apolipoprotein E and low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-receptor-deficient mice develop accelerated atherosclerosis allowing in-depth pathophysiological investigations. Atherosclerotic plaques in these mice contain large numbers of T cells and macrophages. Crossbreeding apolipoprotein E-deficient mice with T-cell-deficient mice and mice with impaired macrophage function (osteopetrotic op/op mice) disclosed the important impact of immune cells on atherosclerotic lesion development. In contrast to the detrimental role of T cells and macrophages, B cells appear to be atheroprotective. These basic experimental findings have partly been confirmed in studies of the human carotid artery system. Inflammation is not only instrumental in the development of human atheromatous plaques, but, importantly, plays a crucial role in the destabilization of internal carotid artery plaques, thus converting chronic atherosclerosis into an acute thrombo-embolic disorder. Humoral factors involved in internal carotid artery destabilization include cytokines, cyclooxygenase-2, matrix metalloproteinases, and tissue factor. Antibodies to oxidized LDL can reflect disease activity on one hand, but can also confer atheroprotection. Novel MRI techniques may aid in the in vivo assessment of acute plaque inflammation in humans.
Conclusions: The impact of inflammation on the development of atherosclerotic plaques and their destabilization opens new avenues for treatment. The effects of statins, acetylsalicyclic acid and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors on stroke prevention may partly be attributable to their profound anti-inflammatory actions. Vaccination against modified LDL and heat shock proteins halt plaque progression in experimental atherosclerosis. Their potential for prevention of human atherosclerosis is currently under investigation.