Lipid-rich foam cell macrophages drive atherosclerosis via several mechanisms, including inflammation, lipid uptake, lipid deposition and plaque vulnerability. The atheroma environment shapes macrophage function and phenotype; anti-inflammatory macrophages improve plaque stability while pro-inflammatory macrophages promote rupture. Current evidence suggests a variety of macrophage phenotypes occur in atherosclerotic plaques with local lipids, cytokines, oxidised phospholipids and pathogenic stimuli altering their phenotype. In this study, we addressed differential functioning of macrophage phenotypes via a systematic analysis of in vitro polarised, human monocyte-derived macrophage phenotypes, focussing on molecular events that regulate foam-cell formation.
We examined transcriptomes, protein levels and functionally determined lipid handling and foam cell formation capacity in macrophages polarised with IFNγ+LPS, IL-4, IL-10, oxPAPC and CXCL4.
RNA sequencing of differentially polarised macrophages revealed distinct gene expression changes, with enrichment in atherosclerosis and lipid-associated pathways. Analysis of lipid processing activity showed IL-4 and IL-10 macrophages have higher lipid uptake and foam cell formation activities, while inflammatory and oxPAPC macrophages displayed lower foam cell formation. Inflammatory macrophages showed low lipid uptake, while higher lipid uptake in oxPAPC macrophages was matched by increased lipid efflux capacity.
Atherosclerosis-associated macrophage polarisation dramatically affects lipid handling capacity underpinned by major transcriptomic changes and altered protein levels in lipid-handling gene expression. This leads to phenotype-specific differences in LDL uptake, cellular cholesterol levels and cholesterol efflux, informing how the plaque environment influences atherosclerosis progression by influencing macrophage phenotypes.
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