Background: An accepted hypothesis states that coronary atherosclerosis (CA) is initiated by endothelial dysfunction due to inflammation and high levels of LDL-C, followed by deposition of lipids and macrophages from the luminal blood into the arterial intima, resulting in plaque formation. The success of statins in preventing CA promised much for extended protection and effective therapeutics. However, stalled progress in pharmaceutical treatment gives a good reason to review logical properties of the hypothesis underlining our efforts, and to reconsider whether our perception of CA is consistent with facts about the normal and diseased coronary artery.
Analysis: To begin with, it must be noted that the normal coronary intima is not a single-layer endothelium covering a thin acellular compartment, as claimed in most publications, but always appears as a multi-layer cellular compartment, or diffuse intimal thickening (DIT), in which cells are arranged in many layers. If low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) invades the DIT from the coronary lumen, the initial depositions ought to be most proximal to blood, i.e. in the inner DIT. The facts show that the opposite is true, and lipids are initially deposited in the outer DIT. This contradiction is resolved by observing that the normal DIT is always avascular, receiving nutrients by diffusion from the lumen, whereas in CA the outer DIT is always neovascularized from adventitial vasa vasorum. The proteoglycan biglycan, confined to the outer DIT in both normal and diseased coronary arteries, has high binding capacity for LDL-C. However, the normal DIT is avascular and biglycan-LDL-C interactions are prevented by diffusion distance and LDL-C size (20 nm), whereas in CA, biglycan in the outer DIT can extract lipoproteins by direct contact with the blood. These facts lead to the single simplest explanation of all observations: (1) lipid deposition is initially localized in the outer DIT; (2) CA often develops at high blood LDL-C levels; (3) apparent CA can develop at lowered blood LDL-C levels. This mechanism is not unique to the coronary artery: for instance, the normally avascular cornea accumulates lipoproteins after neovascularization, resulting in lipid keratopathy.
Hypothesis: Neovascularization of the normally avascular coronary DIT by permeable vasculature from the adventitial vasa vasorum is the cause of LDL deposition and CA. DIT enlargement, seen in early CA and aging, causes hypoxia of the outer DIT and induces neovascularization. According to this alternative proposal, coronary atherosclerosis is not related to inflammation and can occur in individuals with normal circulating levels of LDL, consistent with research findings.