NFAT regulates the expression of AIF-1 and IRT-1: yin and yang splice variants of neointima formation and atherosclerosis

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Alternative transcription and splicing of the allograft inflammatory factor-1 (AIF-1) gene results in the expression of two different proteins: AIF-1 and interferon responsive transcript-1 (IRT-1). Here, we explore the impact of AIF-1 and IRT-1 on vascular smooth muscle cell (VSMC) activation and neointima formation, the mechanisms underlying their alternative splicing, and associations of AIF-1 and IRT-1 mRNA with parameters defining human atherosclerotic plaque phenotype.

Methods and results

Translation of AIF-1 and IRT-1 results in different products with contrasting cellular distribution and functions. Overexpression of AIF-1 stimulates migration and proliferation of human VSMCs, whereas IRT-1 exerts opposite effects. Adenoviral infection of angioplasty-injured rat carotid arteries with AdAIF-1 exacerbates intima hyperplasia, whereas infection with AdIRT-1 reduces neointima. Expression of these variants is modulated by changes in nuclear factor of activated T-cells (NFAT) activity. Pharmacological inhibition of NFAT or targeting of NFATc3 with small interfering RNA (siRNA) lowers the AIF-1/IRT-1 ratio and favours an anti-proliferative outcome. NFAT acts as a repressor on the IRT-1 transcriptional start site, which is also sensitive to interferon-γ stimulation. Expression of AIF-1 mRNA in human carotid plaques associates with less extracellular matrix and a more pro-inflammatory plaque and plasma profile, features that may predispose to plaque rupture. In contrast, expression of IRT-1 mRNA associates with a less aggressive phenotype and less VSMCs at the most stenotic region of the plaque.


Inhibition of NFAT signalling, by shifting the AIF-1/IRT-1 ratio, may be an attractive target to regulate the VSMC response to injury and manipulate plaque stability in atherosclerosis.

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