Evidence for increased oxidant stress has been reported in human atherosclerosis. However, no information is available about the importance of in situ oxidant stress in relation to plaque stability. This information is relevant because the morbidity and mortality of atherosclerosis are essentially the consequences of acute ischemic syndromes due to unstable plaques. We studied 30 carotid atherosclerotic plaques retrieved by endarterectomy from 18 asymptomatic (stable plaques) and 12 symptomatic patients (unstable plaques). Four normal arteries served as controls. After lipid extraction and ester hydrolysis, quantitation of different indices of oxidant stress were analyzed, including hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acids (HETEs), epoxyeicosatetraenoic acids (EETs), ketoeicosatetraenoic acids (oxo-ETEs), and F2-isoprostanes using online reverse-phase high-performance liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS). All measurements were carried out in a strictly double-blind procedure. We found elevated levels of the different compounds in atherosclerotic plaques. Levels of HETEs were 24 times higher than EETs, oxo-ETEs, or F2-isoprostanes. Levels of HETEs, but not those of EETs, oxo-ETEs or F2-isoprostanes, were significantly elevated in plaques retrieved from symptomatic patients compared with those retrieved from asymptomatic patients (1, 738 +/- 274 vs. 1,002 +/- 107 pmol/ micromol lipid phosphorous, respectively; P < 0.01). One monooxygenated arachidonate species, 9-HETE, which cannot be derived from known enzymatic reactions, was the most abundant and significant compound observed in plaques, suggesting that nonenzymatic lipid peroxidation predominates in advanced atherosclerosis and may promote plaque instability.