Apoptosis is abundant in human atherosclerotic lesions, especially in inflammatory cells (macrophages and T cells), and may contribute to the accumulation of gruel and plaque instability

Am J Pathol. 1996 Aug;149(2):367-80.


Death of intimal tissue may lead to plaque rupture with thrombosis, which is the basis of the most severe clinical consequences of atherosclerosis. Little is known about the mechanisms that promote intimal cell death or its nature. This work was undertaken to elucidate the extent to which, the cell types in which, and where programmed cell death, apoptosis, might occur in atherosclerotic lesions. The material was fibrous or fibro-fatty non-ulcerated lesions from the human thoracic aorta and coronary arteries. Apoptosis was indicated by the in situ labeling of internucleosomally degraded DNA with the TUNEL technique, which has a preference for apoptosis as compared with cell necrosis and was combined with the immunohistochemical typing of cells. Apoptosis was corroborated by morphological criteria on the light and electron microscope levels and by the presence of an apoptosis-specific protein. It was common in the lesions and virtually absent in non-atherosclerotic regions. It occurred in smooth muscle cells subendothelially, in places of the fibrous cap, and in the underlying media, which may destabilize the plaque and promote rupture. Inflammatory cells, ie, macrophages and T cells, appeared abundantly subendothelially, in the fibrous cap, and in the shoulder regions, and apoptosis was common, maybe reflecting a means for quenching of the inflammatory reaction. Many macrophages contained abundant apoptotic material indicative of phagocytosis of apoptotic cells, but the occurrence of apoptosis, even in some of these cells, and of apoptotic material extracellularly and the very high numbers of apoptotic cells that were encountered may indicate insufficient mechanisms for the removal of apoptotic cells in the atherosclerotic lesion. It is not possible to decide as yet whether this is due to overloading with cellular material by inflammation and cell multiplication, to an increased frequency of apoptosis, to a reduction of the removal/degradation of apoptotic material by macrophages, or a combination of these factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / analysis
  • Aorta / chemistry
  • Aorta / pathology
  • Apoptosis*
  • Arteriosclerosis / pathology*
  • Arteriosclerosis / physiopathology
  • Cell Nucleus / ultrastructure
  • Coronary Vessels / ultrastructure
  • Cytoplasm / ultrastructure
  • DNA Damage / physiology
  • DNA Nucleotidylexotransferase / metabolism
  • Endothelium, Vascular / chemistry
  • Endothelium, Vascular / pathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Macrophages / chemistry
  • Macrophages / pathology*
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle, Smooth / chemistry
  • Muscle, Smooth / cytology
  • Muscle, Smooth / pathology
  • T-Lymphocytes / chemistry
  • T-Lymphocytes / pathology*


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • DNA Nucleotidylexotransferase