Plaque Evaluation by Ultrasound and Transcriptomics Reveals BCLAF1 as a Regulator of Smooth Muscle Cell Lipid Transdifferentiation in Atherosclerosis

Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2022 May;42(5):659-676. doi: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.121.317018. Epub 2022 Mar 24.


Background: Understanding the processes behind carotid plaque instability is necessary to develop methods for identification of patients and lesions with stroke risk. Here, we investigated molecular signatures in human plaques stratified by echogenicity as assessed by duplex ultrasound.

Methods: Lesion echogenicity was correlated to microarray gene expression profiles from carotid endarterectomies (n=96). The findings were extended into studies of human and mouse atherosclerotic lesions in situ, followed by functional investigations in vitro in human carotid smooth muscle cells (SMCs).

Results: Pathway analyses highlighted muscle differentiation, iron homeostasis, calcification, matrix organization, cell survival balance, and BCLAF1 (BCL2 [B-cell lymphoma 2]-associated transcription factor 1) as the most significant signatures. BCLAF1 was downregulated in echolucent plaques, positively correlated to proliferation and negatively to apoptosis. By immunohistochemistry, BCLAF1 was found in normal medial SMCs. It was repressed early during atherogenesis but reappeared in CD68+ cells in advanced plaques and interacted with BCL2 by proximity ligation assay. In cultured SMCs, BCLAF1 was induced by differentiation factors and mitogens and suppressed by macrophage-conditioned medium. BCLAF1 silencing led to downregulation of BCL2 and SMC markers, reduced proliferation, and increased apoptosis. Transdifferentiation of SMCs by oxLDL (oxidized low-denisty lipoprotein) was accompanied by upregulation of BCLAF1, CD36, and CD68, while oxLDL exposure with BCLAF1 silencing preserved MYH (myosin heavy chain) 11 expression and prevented transdifferentiation. BCLAF1 was associated with expression of cell differentiation, contractility, viability, and inflammatory genes, as well as the scavenger receptors CD36 and CD68. BCLAF1 expression in CD68+/BCL2+ cells of SMC origin was verified in plaques from MYH11 lineage-tracing atherosclerotic mice. Moreover, BCLAF1 downregulation associated with vulnerability parameters and cardiovascular risk in patients with carotid atherosclerosis.

Conclusions: Plaque echogenicity correlated with enrichment of distinct molecular pathways and identified BCLAF1, previously not described in atherosclerosis, as the most significant gene. Functionally, BCLAF1 seems necessary for survival and transdifferentiation of SMCs into a macrophage-like phenotype. The role of BCLAF1 in plaque vulnerability should be further evaluated.

Keywords: atherosclerosis; endarterectomy, carotid; humans; mitogens; transcriptome.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Atherosclerosis* / diagnostic imaging
  • Atherosclerosis* / genetics
  • Atherosclerosis* / metabolism
  • Cell Transdifferentiation
  • Humans
  • Lipids
  • Mice
  • Myocytes, Smooth Muscle / metabolism
  • Plaque, Atherosclerotic* / pathology
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics
  • Repressor Proteins / metabolism*
  • Transcriptome
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins / genetics
  • Ultrasonography


  • BCLAF1 protein, human
  • Bclaf1 protein, mouse
  • Lipids
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins