Human macrophages play a key role in atherogenesis and are believed to be the progenitors of the cholesteryl ester (CE)-laden foam cells present in early atherosclerotic lesions. Several mechanisms by which macrophages accumulate CE have been recently described. One involves a perturbation in LDL metabolism subsequent to macrophage activation. Thus, we decided to study the effect of macrophage activation by immune complexes on N-LDL metabolism. Initially, LDL-containing immune complexes (LDL-IC) were chosen, since increased plasma levels of these IC have been reported in patients with coronary heart disease. Human macrophages stimulated for 22 h with LDL-IC (250 micrograms/ml) and incubated afterwards for 20 h with 10 micrograms/ml 125I-N-LDL showed a six- and fourfold increase in the accumulation and degradation, respectively, of 125I-N-LDL over the values observed in nonstimulated cells. Scatchard analysis of 125I-N-LDL-specific binding suggests an increase (20-fold) in the number of LDL receptors in macrophages stimulated with LDL-IC. We studied other immune complexes varying in size and antigen composition. Some of the IC were able to stimulate, although to a lesser degree, the uptake of N-LDL by macrophages. Lipoprotein IC are more efficient and have the greatest capacity to increase N-LDL uptake and CE accumulation. We conclude that human macrophage activation by LDL-IC leads to an increase in LDL receptor activity and promotes in vitro foam cell formation.

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