Macrophage NFATc3 prevents foam cell formation and atherosclerosis: evidence and mechanisms

Eur Heart J. 2021 Sep 27;ehab660. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehab660. Online ahead of print.


Aims: Our previous study demonstrated that Ca2+ influx through the Orai1 store-operated Ca2+ channel in macrophages contributes to foam cell formation and atherosclerosis via the calcineurin-ASK1 pathway, not the classical calcineurin-nuclear factor of activated T-cell (NFAT) pathway. Moreover, up-regulation of NFATc3 in macrophages inhibits foam cell formation, suggesting that macrophage NFATc3 is a negative regulator of atherogenesis. Hence, this study investigated the precise role of macrophage NFATc3 in atherogenesis.

Methods and results: Macrophage-specific NFATc3 knockout mice were generated to determine the effect of NFATc3 on atherosclerosis in a mouse model of adeno-associated virus-mutant PCSK9-induced atherosclerosis. NFATc3 expression was decreased in macrophages within human and mouse atherosclerotic lesions. Moreover, NFATc3 levels in peripheral blood mononuclear cells from atherosclerotic patients were negatively associated with plaque instability. Furthermore, macrophage-specific ablation of NFATc3 in mice led to the atherosclerotic plaque formation, whereas macrophage-specific NFATc3 transgenic mice exhibited the opposite phenotype. NFATc3 deficiency in macrophages promoted foam cell formation by potentiating SR-A- and CD36-meditated lipid uptake. NFATc3 directly targeted and transcriptionally up-regulated miR-204 levels. Mature miR-204-5p suppressed SR-A expression via canonical regulation. Unexpectedly, miR-204-3p localized in the nucleus and inhibited CD36 transcription. Restoration of miR-204 abolished the proatherogenic phenotype observed in the macrophage-specific NFATc3 knockout mice, and blockade of miR-204 function reversed the beneficial effects of NFATc3 in macrophages.

Conclusion: Macrophage NFATc3 up-regulates miR-204 to reduce SR-A and CD36 levels, thereby preventing foam cell formation and atherosclerosis, indicating that the NFATc3/miR-204 axis may be a potential therapeutic target against atherosclerosis.

Keywords: Atherosclerosis; Macrophages; MiR-204; NFATc3; Scavenger receptors.