Killer cells in atherosclerosis

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Abstract

Cytotoxic lymphocytes (killer cells) play a critical role in host defence mechanisms, protecting against infections and in tumour surveillance. They can also exert detrimental effects in chronic inflammatory disorders and in autoimmune diseases. Tissue cell death and necrosis are prominent features of advanced atherosclerotic lesions including vulnerable/unstable lesions which are largely responsible for most heart attacks and strokes. Evidence for accumulation of killer cells in both human and mouse lesions together with their cytotoxic potential strongly suggest that these cells contribute to cell death and necrosis in lesions leading to vulnerable plaque development and potentially plaque rupture. Killer cells can be divided into two groups, adaptive and innate immune cells depending on whether they require antigen presentation for activation. Activated killer cells detect damaged or stressed cells and kill by cytotoxic mechanisms that include perforin, granzymes, TRAIL or FasL and in some cases TNF-α. In this review, we examine current knowledge on killer cells in atherosclerosis, including CD8 T cells, CD28- CD4 T cells, natural killer cells and γδ-T cells, mechanisms responsible for their activation, their migration to developing lesions and effector functions. We also discuss pharmacological strategies to prevent their deleterious vascular effects by preventing/limiting their cytotoxic effects within atherosclerotic lesions as well as potential immunomodulatory therapies that might better target lesion-resident killer cells, to minimise any compromise of the immune system, which could result in increased susceptibility to infections and reductions in tumour surveillance.

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