Multicolor fluorescence technique to detect apoptotic cells in advanced coronary atherosclerotic plaques
AbstractApoptosis occurring in atherosclerotic lesions has been suggested to be involved in the evolution and the structural stability of the plaques. It is still a matter of debate whether apoptosis mainly involves vascular smooth muscle cells (vSMCs) in the fibrous tissue or inflammatory (namely foam) cells, thus preferentially affecting the cell-poor lipid core of the atherosclerotic plaques. The aim of the present investigation was to detect the presence of apoptotic cells and to estimate their percentage in a series of atherosclerotic plaques obtained either by autopsy or during surgical atherectomy. Apoptotic cells were identified on paraffinembedded sections on the basis of cell nuclear morphology after DNA staining and/or by cytochemical reactions (TUNEL assay, immunodetection of the proteolytic poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase-1 [PARP-1] fragment); biochemical procedures (identifying DNA fragmentation or PARP-1 proteolysis) were also used. Indirect immunofluorescence techniques were performed to label specific antigens for either vSMCs or macrophages (i.e., the cells which are most likely prone to apoptosis in atherosclerotic lesions): the proper selection of fluorochrome labeling allowed the simultaneous detection of the cell phenotype and the apoptotic characteristics, by multicolor fluorescence techniques. Apoptotic cells proved to be less than 5% of the whole cell population, in atherosclerotic plaque sections: this is, in fact, a too low cell fraction to be detected by widely used biochemical methods, such as agarose gel electrophoresis of low-molecular-weight DNA or Western-blot analysis of PARP-1 degradation. Most apoptotic cells were of macrophage origin, and clustered in the tunica media, near or within the lipid-rich core; only a few TUNEL-positive cells were labeled for antigens specific for vSMCs. These results confirm that, among the cell populations in atherosclerotic plaques, macrophage foam-cells are preferentially involved in apoptosis. Their death may decrease the cell number in the lipid core and generate a possibly defective apoptotic clearance: the resulting release of matrix-degrading enzymes could contribute to weakening the fibrous cap and promote the plaque rupture with the risk of acute ischemic events, while increasing the thrombogenic pultaceous pool of the plaque core.
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