T cell subsets and functions in atherosclerosis

Nat Rev Cardiol. 2020 Jul;17(7):387-401. doi: 10.1038/s41569-020-0352-5. Epub 2020 Mar 16.


Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the arterial wall and the primary underlying cause of cardiovascular disease. Data from in vivo imaging, cell-lineage tracing and knockout studies in mice, as well as clinical interventional studies and advanced mRNA sequencing techniques, have drawn attention to the role of T cells as critical drivers and modifiers of the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. CD4+ T cells are commonly found in atherosclerotic plaques. A large body of evidence indicates that T helper 1 (TH1) cells have pro-atherogenic roles and regulatory T (Treg) cells have anti-atherogenic roles. However, Treg cells can become pro-atherogenic. The roles in atherosclerosis of other TH cell subsets such as TH2, TH9, TH17, TH22, follicular helper T cells and CD28null T cells, as well as other T cell subsets including CD8+ T cells and γδ T cells, are less well understood. Moreover, some T cells seem to have both pro-atherogenic and anti-atherogenic functions. In this Review, we summarize the knowledge on T cell subsets, their functions in atherosclerosis and the process of T cell homing to atherosclerotic plaques. Much of our understanding of the roles of T cells in atherosclerosis is based on findings from experimental models. Translating these findings into human disease is challenging but much needed. T cells and their specific cytokines are attractive targets for developing new preventive and therapeutic approaches including potential T cell-related therapies for atherosclerosis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Atherosclerosis / etiology
  • Atherosclerosis / metabolism
  • Atherosclerosis / physiopathology*
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / physiology*
  • Translational Research, Biomedical


  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines