Targeting epigenetics and non-coding RNAs in atherosclerosis: from mechanisms to therapeutics

Pharmacol Ther. 2019 Apr:196:15-43. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2018.11.003. Epub 2018 Nov 13.


Atherosclerosis, the principal cause of cardiovascular death worldwide, is a pathological disease characterized by fibro-proliferation, chronic inflammation, lipid accumulation, and immune disorder in the vessel wall. As the atheromatous plaques develop into advanced stage, the vulnerable plaques are prone to rupture, which causes acute cardiovascular events, including ischemic stroke and myocardial infarction. Emerging evidence has suggested that atherosclerosis is also an epigenetic disease with the interplay of multiple epigenetic mechanisms. The epigenetic basis of atherosclerosis has transformed our knowledge of epigenetics from an important biological phenomenon to a burgeoning field in cardiovascular research. Here, we provide a systematic and up-to-date overview of the current knowledge of three distinct but interrelated epigenetic processes (including DNA methylation, histone methylation/acetylation, and non-coding RNAs), in atherosclerotic plaque development and instability. Mechanistic and conceptual advances in understanding the biological roles of various epigenetic modifiers in regulating gene expression and functions of endothelial cells (vascular homeostasis, leukocyte adhesion, endothelial-mesenchymal transition, angiogenesis, and mechanotransduction), smooth muscle cells (proliferation, migration, inflammation, hypertrophy, and phenotypic switch), and macrophages (differentiation, inflammation, foam cell formation, and polarization) are discussed. The inherently dynamic nature and reversibility of epigenetic regulation, enables the possibility of epigenetic therapy by targeting epigenetic "writers", "readers", and "erasers". Several Food Drug Administration-approved small-molecule epigenetic drugs show promise in pre-clinical studies for the treatment of atherosclerosis. Finally, we discuss potential therapeutic implications and challenges for future research involving cardiovascular epigenetics, with an aim to provide a translational perspective for identifying novel biomarkers of atherosclerosis, and transforming precision cardiovascular research and disease therapy in modern era of epigenetics.

Keywords: Atherosclerosis; DNA methylation; Epigenetics; Histone modification; Non-coding RNA.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Atherosclerosis / drug therapy
  • Atherosclerosis / genetics*
  • Atherosclerosis / immunology
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Humans
  • Immunity
  • RNA, Untranslated*
  • Risk Factors


  • RNA, Untranslated