Sphingolipids in Atherosclerosis and Vascular Biology
Abstract—Sphingolipids and their metabolic products are now known to have second-messenger functions in a variety of cellular signaling pathways. Lactosylceramide (LacCer), a glycosphingolipid (GSL) present in vascular cells such as endothelial cells, smooth muscle cells, macrophages, neutrophils, platelets, and monocytes, contributes to atherosclerosis. Large amounts of LacCer accumulate in fatty streaks, intimal plaque, and calcified intimal plaque, along with oxidized low density lipoproteins (Ox-LDLs), growth factors, and proinflammatory cytokines. A possible role for LacCer in vascular cell biology was suggested when this GSL was found to stimulate the proliferation in vitro of aortic smooth muscle cells (ASMCs). A further link of LacCer in atherosclerosis was uncovered by the finding that Ox-LDLs stimulated specifically the biosynthesis of LacCer. Ox-LDL–stimulated endogenous synthesis of LacCer by activation of UDP-Gal:GlcCer,β1-4galtransferase (GalT-2) is an early step in this signaling pathway. In turn, LacCer serves as a lipid second messenger that orchestrates a signal transduction pathway, ultimately leading to cell proliferation. This signaling pathway includes LacCer-mediated activation of NADPH oxidase that produces superoxide. Such superoxide molecules stimulate the GTP loading of p21ras. Subsequently, the kinase cascade (Raf-1, Mek2, and p44MAPK [mitogen-activated protein kinase]) is activated. The phosphorylated form of p44MAPK translocates from the cytoplasm to the nucleus and engages in c-fos expression, proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) such as cyclin activation, and cell proliferation takes place. Interestingly, d-threo-1-phenyl-2-decanoylamino-3-morpholino-1-propanol (D-PDMP), an inhibitor of GalT-2, can abrogate the Ox-LDL–mediated activation of GalT-2, the signal kinase cascade noted above, as well as cell proliferation. Additional studies have revealed that LacCer mediates the tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α)–induced nuclear factor-κB expression and intercellular adhesion molecule (ICAM-1) expression in vascular endothelial cells via the redox-dependent transcriptional pathway. LacCer also stimulates the expression of CD11/CD8, or Mac-1, on the surface of human neutrophils. Collectively, this phenomenon may contribute to the adhesion of neutrophils or monocytes to the endothelial cell surface and thus initiate the process of atherosclerosis. In addition, the LacCer–mediated proliferation of ASMCs may contribute to the progression of atherosclerosis. On the other hand, programmed cell death (apoptosis) by proinflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α, interleukin-1, and high concentrations of Ox-LDL occur via activation of a cell membrane–associated neutral sphingomyelinase (N-SMase). N-SMase hydrolyzes sphingomyelin into ceramide and phosphocholine. In turn, ceramide or a homologue serves as an important stress-signaling molecule. Interestingly, an antibody against N-SMase can abrogate Ox-LDL– and TNF-α–induced apoptosis and therefore may be useful for in vivo studies of apoptosis in experimental animals. Because plaque stability is an integral aspect of atherosclerosis management, activation of N-SMase and subsequent apoptosis may be vital events in the onset of plaque rupture, stroke, or heart failure. Interestingly, in human liver cells, N-SMase action mediates the TNF-α–induced maturation of the sterol regulatory-element binding protein. Moreover, a cell-permeable ceramide can reconstitute the phenomenon above in a sterol-independent fashion. Such findings may provide new avenues for therapy for patients with atherosclerosis. The findings described here indicate an important role for sphingolipids in vascular biology and provide an exciting opportunity for further research in vascular disease and atherosclerosis.