Human Alternative Macrophages Populate Calcified Areas of Atherosclerotic Lesions and Display Impaired RANKL-Induced Osteoclastic Bone Resorption Activity

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Vascular calcification is a process similar to bone formation leading to an inappropriate deposition of calcium phosphate minerals in advanced atherosclerotic plaques. Monocyte-derived macrophages, located in atherosclerotic lesions and presenting heterogeneous phenotypes, from classical proinflammatory M1 to alternative anti-inflammatory M2 macrophages, could potentially display osteoclast-like functions.


To characterize the phenotype of macrophages located in areas surrounding the calcium deposits in human atherosclerotic plaques.

Methods and Results:

Macrophages near calcium deposits display an alternative phenotype being both CD68 and mannose receptor–positive, expressing carbonic anhydrase type II, but relatively low levels of cathepsin K. In vitro interleukin-4-polarization of human primary monocytes into macrophages results in lower expression and activity of cathepsin K compared with resting unpolarized macrophages. Moreover, interleukin-4 polarization lowers expression levels of the osteoclast transcriptional activator nuclear factor of activated T cells type c-1, associated with increased gene promoter levels of the transcriptional repression mark H3K27me3 (histone 3 lysine 27 trimethylation). Despite higher expression of the receptor activator of nuclear factor κB receptor, receptor activator of nuclear factor κB ligand/macrophage colony-stimulating factor induction of nuclear factor of activated T cells type c-1 and cathepsin K expression is defective in these macrophages because of reduced Erk/c-fos–mediated downstream signaling resulting in impaired bone resorption capacity.


These results indicate that macrophages surrounding calcium deposits in human atherosclerotic plaques are phenotypically defective being unable to resorb calcification.

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