Atherosclerotic Plaque Epigenetic Age Acceleration Predicts a Poor Prognosis and Is Associated With Endothelial-to-Mesenchymal Transition in Humans

Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2024 Jun;44(6):1419-1431. doi: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.123.320692. Epub 2024 Apr 18.


Background: Epigenetic age estimators (clocks) are predictive of human mortality risk. However, it is not yet known whether the epigenetic age of atherosclerotic plaques is predictive for the risk of cardiovascular events.

Methods: Whole-genome DNA methylation of human carotid atherosclerotic plaques (n=485) and of blood (n=93) from the Athero-Express endarterectomy cohort was used to calculate epigenetic age acceleration (EAA). EAA was linked to clinical characteristics, plaque histology, and future cardiovascular events (n=136). We studied whole-genome DNA methylation and bulk and single-cell transcriptomics to uncover molecular mechanisms of plaque EAA. We experimentally confirmed our in silico findings using in vitro experiments in primary human coronary endothelial cells.

Results: Male and female patients with severe atherosclerosis had a median chronological age of 69 years. The median epigenetic age was 65 years in females (median EAA, -2.2 [interquartile range, -4.3 to 2.2] years) and 68 years in males (median EAA, -0.3 [interquartile range, -2.9 to 3.8] years). Patients with diabetes and a high body mass index had higher plaque EAA. Increased EAA of plaque predicted future events in a 3-year follow-up in a Cox regression model (univariate hazard ratio, 1.7; P=0.0034) and adjusted multivariate model (hazard ratio, 1.56; P=0.02). Plaque EAA predicted outcome independent of blood EAA (hazard ratio, 1.3; P=0.018) and of plaque hemorrhage (hazard ratio, 1.7; P=0.02). Single-cell RNA sequencing in plaque samples from 46 patients in the same cohort revealed smooth muscle and endothelial cells as important cell types in plaque EAA. Endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition was associated with EAA, which was experimentally confirmed by TGFβ-triggered endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition inducing rapid epigenetic aging in coronary endothelial cells.

Conclusions: Plaque EAA is a strong and independent marker of poor outcome in patients with severe atherosclerosis. Plaque EAA was linked to mesenchymal endothelial and smooth muscle cells. Endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition was associated with EAA, which was experimentally validated. Epigenetic aging mechanisms may provide new targets for treatments that reduce atherosclerosis complications.

Keywords: acceleration; endarterectomy; epigenomics; hemorrhage; muscle, smooth.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Carotid Artery Diseases / genetics
  • Carotid Artery Diseases / pathology
  • Carotid Artery Diseases / surgery
  • Cells, Cultured
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Endothelial Cells* / metabolism
  • Endothelial Cells* / pathology
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Plaque, Atherosclerotic*
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors