Cellular pathology of atherosclerosis: smooth muscle cells prime cocultured endothelial cells for enhanced leukocyte adhesion

George Rainger, Gerard Nash

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

70 Citations (Scopus)


During the development of an atherosclerotic plaque, mononuclear leukocytes infiltrate the artery wall through vascular endothelial cells (ECs). At the same time, arterial smooth muscle cells (SMCs) change from the physiological contractile phenotype to the secretory phenotype and migrate into the plaque. We investigated whether secretory SMCs released cytokines that stimulated ECs in a manner leading to increased leukocyte recruitment and thus might accelerate atheroma formation. SMCs and ECs were established in coculture on the opposite sides of a porous membrane, and the cocultured cells were incorporated into a flow-based assay for studying leukocyte adhesion. We found that coculture primed ECs so that their response to the inflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor-alpha was amplified. ECs cocultured with SMCs supported greatly increased adhesion of flowing leukocytes and were sensitized to respond to tumor necrosis factor-alpha at concentrations 10 000 times lower than ECs cultured alone. In addition, coculture altered the endothelial selectin adhesion molecules used for leukocyte capture. EC priming was attributable to the cytokine transforming growth factor-beta(1), which was proteolytically activated to a biologically active form by the serine protease plasmin. These results suggest a new role for secretory SMCs in the development of atheromatous plaque. We propose that paracrine interaction between ECs and SMCs has the potential to amplify leukocyte recruitment to sites of atheroma and exacerbate the inflammatory processes believed to be at the heart of disease progression.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)615-622
Number of pages8
JournalCirculation Research
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2001


  • endothelial cells
  • leukocyte adhesion
  • transforming growth factor-beta(1)
  • smooth muscle cells
  • tumor necrosis factor-alpha


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