Atherosclerosis is characterized by fatty plaques in large and medium sized arteries. Their rupture can causes thrombi, occlusions of downstream vessels and adverse clinical events. The investigation of atherosclerotic plaques is made difficult by their highly heterogeneous nature. Here we propose a spatially resolved approach based on matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) mass spectrometry imaging to investigate lipids in specific regions of atherosclerotic plaques. The method was applied to a small dataset including symptomatic and asymptomatic human carotid atherosclerosis plaques. Tissue sections of symptomatic and asymptomatic human carotid atherosclerotic plaques were analyzed by MALDI mass spectrometry imaging (MALDI MSI) of lipids, and adjacent sections analyzed by histology and immunofluorescence. These multimodal datasets were used to compare the lipid profiles of specific histopathological regions within the plaque. The lipid profiles of macrophage-rich regions and intimal vascular smooth muscle cells exhibited the largest changes associated with plaque outcome. Macrophage-rich regions from symptomatic lesions were found to be enriched in sphingomyelins, and intimal vascular smooth muscle cells of symptomatic plaques were enriched in cholesterol and cholesteryl esters. The proposed method enabled the MALDI MSI analysis of specific regions of the atherosclerotic lesion, confirming MALDI MSI as a promising tool for the investigation of histologically heterogeneous atherosclerotic plaques.
Keywords: MALDI MSI; atherosclerosis; lipids; macrophages; plaque outcome; vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs).