Aims: De-differentiation and activation of pro-inflammatory pathways are key transitions vascular smooth muscle cells (SMCs) make during atherogenesis. Here, we explored the upstream regulators of this 'atherogenic transition'.
Methods and results: Genome-wide sequencing studies, including ATAC-seq (Assay for Transposase-Accessible Chromatin using sequencing) and RNA-seq, were performed on cells isolated from both murine SMC-lineage tracing models of atherosclerosis and human atherosclerotic lesions. At the bulk level, alterations in chromatin accessibility were associated with the atherogenic transitioning of lesional SMCs, especially in relation to genes that govern differentiation status and complement-dependent inflammation. Using computational biology, we observed that a transcription factor previously related to coronary artery disease, ATF3 (Activating transcription factor 3), was predicted to be an upstream regulator of genes altered during the transition. At the single-cell level, our results indicated that ATF3 is a key repressor of SMC transitioning towards the subset of cells that promote vascular inflammation by activating the complement cascade. The expression of ATF3 and complement component C3 were negatively correlated in SMCs from human atherosclerotic lesions, suggesting translational relevance. Phenome-wide association studies indicated that genetic variation that results in reduced expression of ATF3 is correlated with an increased risk for atherosclerosis, and the expression of ATF3 was significantly downregulated in humans with advanced vascular disease.
Conclusion: Our study indicates that the plasticity of atherosclerotic SMCs may in part be explained by dynamic changes in their chromatin architecture, which in turn may contribute to their maladaptive response to inflammation-induced stress.
Translational perspective: The recent CANTOS and COLCOT trials have shown that targeting inflammatory pathways lowers the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events. However, more specific targets are needed to avoid immunosuppressive side effects. Our data identify an upstream regulator of pro-inflammatory SMCs, ATF3, which is involved in the initial atherogenic transitioning of lesional SMCs. Restoring ATF3 activity may prevent the de-differentiation of SMCs and offer a novel translational approach for the suppression of complement-dependent inflammation in atherosclerotic lesions.
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