Niemann-Pick disease type C (NPC) is characterized by substantial intracellular accumulation of unesterified cholesterol. The accumulation of unesterified cholesterol in NPC fibroblasts cultured with low density lipoprotein (LDL) appears to result from the inability of LDL to stimulate cholesterol esterification in addition to impaired LDL-mediated downregulation of LDL receptor activity and cellular cholesterol synthesis. Although a defect in cholesterol transport in NPC cells has been inferred from previous studies, no experiments have been reported that measure the intracellular movement of LDL-cholesterol specifically. We have used four approaches to assess intracellular cholesterol transport in normal and NPC cells and have determined the following: (a) mevinolin-inhibited NPC cells are defective in using LDL-cholesterol for growth. However, exogenously added mevalonate restores cell growth equally in normal and NPC cells; (b) the transport of LDL-derived [3H]cholesterol to the plasma membrane is slower in NPC cells, while the rate of appearance of [3H]acetate-derived, endogenously synthesized [3H]cholesterol at the plasma membrane is the same for normal and NPC cells; (c) in NPC cells, LDL-derived [3H]cholesterol accumulates in lysosomes to higher levels than normal, resulting in defective movement to other cell membranes; and (d) incubation of cells with LDL causes an increase in cholesterol content of NPC lysosomes that is threefold greater than that observed in normal lysosomes. Our results indicate that a cholesterol transport defect exists in NPC that is specific for LDL-derived cholesterol.

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