Heme Oxygenase 1 Determines Atherosclerotic Lesion Progression Into a Vulnerable Plaque

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The molecular regulation for the transition from stable to vulnerable plaque remains to be elucidated. Heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1) and its metabolites have been implicated in the cytoprotective defense against oxidative injury in atherogenesis. In this study, we sought to assess the role of HO-1 in the progression toward plaque instability in carotid artery disease in patients and in a murine model of vulnerable plaque development.

Methods and Results—

Atherectomy biopsy from 112 patients with clinical carotid artery disease was collected and stratified according to characteristics of plaque vulnerability. HO-1 expression correlated closely with features of vulnerable human atheromatous plaque (P<0.005), including macrophage and lipid accumulation, and was inversely correlated with intraplaque vascular smooth muscle cells and collagen deposition. HO-1 expression levels correlated with the plaque destabilizing factors matrix metalloproteinase-9, interleukin-8, and interleukin-6. Likewise, in a vulnerable plaque model using apolipoprotein E−/− mice, HO-1 expression was upregulated in vulnerable versus stable lesions. HO-1 induction by cobalt protoporphyrin impeded lesion progression into vulnerable plaques, indicated by a reduction in necrotic core size and intraplaque lipid accumulation, whereas cap thickness and vascular smooth muscle cells were increased. In contrast, inhibition of HO-1 by zinc protoporphyrin augmented plaque vulnerability. Plaque stabilizing was prominent after adenoviral transduction of HO-1 compared with sham virus–treated animals, providing proof that the observed effects on plaque vulnerability were HO-1 specific.


Here we demonstrate in a well-defined patient group and a murine vulnerable plaque model that HO-1 induction reverses plaque progression from a vulnerable plaque to a more stable phenotype as part of a compensatory atheroprotective response.

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