Background - Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is an important angiogenic factor reported to induce migration and proliferation of endothelial cells, enhance vascular permeability, and modulate thrombogenicity. VEGF expression in cultured cells (smooth muscle cells, macrophages, endothelial cells) is controlled by growth factors and cytokines. Hence, the question arises of whether VEGF could play a role in atherogenesis. Methods and Results - Frozen sections from 38 coronary artery segments were studied. The specimens were characterized as normal with diffuse intimal thickening, early atherosclerosis with hypercellularity, and advanced atherosclerosis (atheromatous plaques, fibrous plaques, and totally occlusive lesions). VEGF expression as well as the expression of 2 VEGF receptors, flt-1 and Flk-1, were studied with immunohistochemical techniques in these samples at the different stages of human coronary atherosclerosis progression. The expression of VEGF mRNA was also studied with reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction. Normal arterial segments showed no substantial VEGF expression hypercellular and atheromatous lesions showed distinct VEGF positivity of activated endothelial cells, macrophages, and partially differentiated smooth muscle cells. VEGF positivity was also detected in endothelial cells of intraplaque microvessels within advanced lesions. In totally occlusive lesions with extensive neovascularization, intense immunostaining for VEGF was observed in accumulated macrophages and endothelial cells of the microvessels. Furthermore, VEGF mRNA expression was detected in atherosclerotic coronary segments but not in normal coronary segments. The immunostainings for flt-1 and Flk-1 were detected in aggregating macrophages in atherosclerotic lesions and also in endothelial cells of the microvessels in totally occlusive lesions. Conclusions - These results demonstrate distinct expression of VEGF and its receptors (flt-1 and Flk-1) in atherosclerotic lesions in human coronary arteries. Considering the multipotent actions of VEGF documented experimentally in vivo and in vitro, our findings suggest that VEGF may have some role in the progression of human coronary atherosclerosis, as well as in recanalization processes in obstructive coronary diseases.
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