Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

Immune mechanisms in atherosclerosis; Focus on the role of the complement system

Riina Oksjoki

Doctoral dissertation, November 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Medicine, Institute of Clinical Medicine and Wihuri Research Institute.

Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory disease characterized by accumulation of lipids in the inner layer of the arterial wall. During atherogenesis, various structures that are recognized as non-self by the immune system, such as modified lipoproteins, are deposited in the arterial wall. Accordingly, atherosclerotic lesions and blood of humans and animals with atherosclerotic lesions show signs of activation of both innate and adaptive immune responses. Although immune attack is initially a self-protective reaction, which is meant to destroy or remove harmful agents, a chronic inflammatory state in the arterial wall accelerates atherosclerosis. Indeed, various modulations of the immune system of atherosclerosis-prone animals have provided us with convincing evidence that immunological mechanisms play an important role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis.

This thesis focuses on the role of complement system, a player of the innate immunity, in atherosclerosis. Complement activation via any of the three different pathways (classical, alternative, lectin) proceeds as a self-amplifying cascade, which leads to the generation of opsonins, anaphylatoxins C3a and C5a, and terminal membrane-attack complex (MAC, C5b-9), all of which regulate the inflammatory response and act in concert to destroy their target structures. To prevent uncontrolled complement activation or its attack against normal host cells, complement needs to be under strict control by regulatory proteins. The complement system has been shown to be activated in atherosclerotic lesions, modified lipoproteins and immune complexes containing oxLDL, for instance, being its activators.

First, we investigated the presence and role of complement regulators in human atherosclerotic lesions. We found that inhibitors of the classical and alternative pathways, C4b-binding protein and factor H, respectively, were present in atherosclerotic lesions, where they localized in the superficial proteoglycan-rich layer. In addition, both inhibitors were found to bind to arterial proteoglycans in vitro. Immunohistochemical stainings revealed that, in the superficial layer of the intima, complement activation had been limited to the C3 level, whereas in the deeper intimal layers, complement activation had proceeded to the terminal C5b-9 level. We were also able to show that arterial proteoglycans inhibit complement activation in vitro. These findings suggested to us that the proteoglycan-rich layer of the arterial intima contains matrix-bound complement inhibitors and forms a protective zone, in which complement activation is restricted to the C3 level. Thus, complement activation is regulated in atherosclerotic lesions, and the extracellular matrix is involved in this process.

Next, we studied whether the receptors for the two complement derived effectors, anaphylatoxins C3a and C5a, are expressed in human coronary atherosclerotic lesions. Our results of immunohistochemistry and RT-PCR analysis showed that, in contrast to normal intima, C3aR and C5aR were highly expressed in atherosclerotic lesions. In atherosclerotic plaques, the principal cells expressing both C3aR and C5aR were macrophages. Moreover, T cells expressed C5aR, and a small fraction of them also expressed C3aR, mast cells expressed C5aR, whereas endothelial cells and subendothelial smooth muscle cells expressed both C3aR and C5aR. These results suggested that intimal cells can respond to and become activated by complement-derived anaphylatoxins.

Finally, we wanted to learn, whether oxLDL-IgG immune complexes, activators of the classical complement pathway, could have direct cellular effects in atherogenesis. Thus, we tested whether oxLDL-IgG immune complexes affect the survival of human monocytes, the precursors of macrophages, which are the most abundant inflammatory cell type in atherosclerotic lesions. We found that OxLDL-IgG immune complexes, in addition to transforming monocytes into foam cells, promoted their survival by decreasing their spontaneous apoptosis. This effect was mediated by cross-linking Fc receptors with ensuing activation of Akt-dependent survival signaling. Our finding revealed a novel mechanism by which oxLDL-IgG immune complexes can directly affect the accumulation of monocyte-macrophages in human atherosclerotic lesions and thus play a role in atherogenesis.

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Last updated 29.09.2006

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