The pathogenesis of atherosclerosis: An overview

C. J. Schwartz, A. J. Valente, E. A. Sprague, J. L. Kelley, R. M. Nerem

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244 Scopus citations


In this unifying hypothesis directed to the etiology and pathogenesis of atherosclerosis, the importance of focal arterial lesion‐prone sites has been emphasized. Key initial participants in these sites include the focal intimal influx and accumulation of low‐density lipoprotein (LDL) and a preferential recruitment of blood monocytes. Both are further enhanced in the presence of hyperlipidemia, when the quantity of intimal LDL and the oxidative potential of the intima exceed the capacity of macrophages to remove, via the non‐down‐regulating scavenger receptor, cytotoxic anionic (Ox‐LDL) macromolecules. Foam cells, pathognomonic of the fatty streak, form during the receptor‐mediated uptake of Ox‐LDL by the macrophages. Interstitial free radicals and the excess of Ox‐LDL particles injure and kill cells, including the foam cells, with the formation of the necrotic extracellular lipid core, a key transitional step in lesion progression. Monocyte‐macrophage recruitment to the intima is likely to be regulated not only by a multiplicity of endothelial adhesive cytokines, integrins, and selectins, but also by the monocyte‐specific chemoattractant, MCP‐1, constitutively synthesized and secreted by intimal smooth muscle and endothelial cells. Its synthesis and secretion is augmented by mildly oxidized LDL. Free radicals, pivotal in the oxidation of LDL, and derived from activated macrophages, and also endothelial and smooth muscle cells. Smooth muscle cells migrate from the media through the intimal endothelial layer (IEL) and proliferate under the regulation of a number of mitogens, including platelet‐derived growth factor (PDGF). Collagen synthesis by smooth muscle cells is substantial. Lymphocytes, as a source of interferons, invade the plaque and are present in the adventitia in substantial numbers, likely representing an autoimmune response in the later stages of plaque development. Platelets and mural thrombosis directly contribute to subsequent plaque growth, particularly after plaque rupture or fissure and disruption of the thrombo‐resistant endothelial cells (EC). Plaque regression in all likelihood involves the conversion of the inert pool of extracellular lipid to a metabolically active intracellular pool and subsequent clearance by the high‐density lipoprotein mediated reverse cholesterol transport system. The atherogenic cascades so described conceptually represent arterial inflammatory and healing processes occurring in a hyperlipidemic environment. Many components of pathogenesis are the targets for modulation by genetic, hemodynamic and selected risk factors. The prevention and treatment of the disease should logically target reduction in plasma LDL levels, the inhibition of the oxidative modification of lipoproteins, including LDL, by free radical scavengers, and augmentation of the reverse cholesterol transport system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalClinical Cardiology
Issue number1 S
StatePublished - Feb 1991
Externally publishedYes


  • antioxidants
  • chemoattractants
  • endothelium
  • growth factors
  • lesion‐prone sites
  • macrophages
  • necrosis
  • oxidized LDL
  • regression
  • smooth muscle
  • thrombosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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