Foam cell formation: A new target for fighting atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease

Vascul Pharmacol. 2019 Jan:112:54-71. doi: 10.1016/j.vph.2018.08.002. Epub 2018 Aug 14.


During atherosclerosis, the gradual accumulation of lipids into the subendothelial space of damaged arteries results in several lipid modification processes followed by macrophage uptake in the arterial wall. The way in which these modified lipoproteins are dealt with determines the likelihood of cholesterol accumulation within the monocyte-derived macrophage and thus its transformation into the foam cell that makes up the characteristic fatty streak observed in the early stages of atherosclerosis. The unique expression of chemokine receptors and cellular adhesion molecules expressed on the cell surface of monocytes points to a particular extravasation route that they can take to gain entry into atherosclerotic site, in order to undergo differentiation into the phagocytic macrophage. Indeed several GWAS and animal studies have identified key genes and proteins required for monocyte recruitment as well cholesterol handling involving lipid uptake, cholesterol esterification and cholesterol efflux. A re-examination of the previously accepted paradigm of macrophage foam cell origin has been called into question by recent studies demonstrating shared expression of scavenger receptors, cholesterol transporters and pro-inflammatory cytokine release by alternative cell types present in the neointima, namely; endothelial cells, vascular smooth muscle cells and stem/progenitor cells. Thus, therapeutic targets aimed at a more heterogeneous foam cell population with shared functions, such as enhanced protease activity, and signalling pathways, mediated by non-coding RNA molecules, may provide greater therapeutic outcome in patients. Finally, studies targeting each aspect of foam cell formation and death using both genetic knock down and pharmacological inhibition have provided researchers with a clearer understanding of the cellular processes at play, as well as helped researchers to identify key molecular targets, which may hold significant therapeutic potential in the future.

Keywords: Atherosclerosis; Cardiovascular disease; Endothelial cells; Foam cell; Genetic animal model; Genome wide association studies; Macrophages; Non-coding RNAs; Pharmacological inhibition; Protease; Stem/progenitor cells; Vascular smooth muscle cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Atherosclerosis / drug therapy*
  • Atherosclerosis / genetics
  • Atherosclerosis / metabolism
  • Atherosclerosis / pathology
  • Cardiovascular Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Foam Cells / drug effects*
  • Foam Cells / metabolism
  • Foam Cells / pathology
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Necrosis
  • Phenotype
  • Plaque, Atherosclerotic*
  • Risk Factors
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects


  • Cardiovascular Agents
  • Cholesterol