Rheumatic disease is characterized by inflammation and endothelial dysfunction, which contribute to accelerated atherosclerosis. Circulating endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs) can restore dysfunctional endothelium and thereby protect against atherosclerotic vascular disease. The number and function of EPCs are, however, affected in rheumatic diseases such as psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, systemic sclerosis, and antineutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibody-associated vasculitis. Rheumatic disease is often characterized by decreased numbers, and impaired function, of EPCs, although numbers of these cells might increase during the initial years of systemic sclerosis. Pioneering studies show that EPC dysfunction might be improved with pharmacological treatment. How best to restore EPC function, and whether achieving this aim can prevent long-term cardiovascular complications in rheumatic disease, remain to be established.
Westerweel, P.E. & Verhaar, M. C. Nat. Rev. Rheumatol.5, 332-340 (2009); published online 5 May 2009; doi:10.1038/nrrheum.2009.81