The oxidative modification of low density lipoprotein (LDL) has been implicated as an early step in the formation of atheromatous lesions. In vitro studies suggest it to be accelerated, or even initiated, by transition metals such as iron or copper in combination with a reducing agent. Even if such metals have been demonstrated in atheroma gruels, their origin and precise localisation within human atheroma are presently unknown.
In the initial part of this study we applied Pearl's method, energy dispersive X-ray microanalysis, and a modified Timm sulphide silver method (SSM) to demonstrate the occurrence of iron in early atherosclerotic lesions from a number of consecutive autopsy cases with evident, general atheromatosis. With the very sensitive SSM, but not with the other techniques, we found foam cells to contain heavy metals with a mainly lysosomal localization.
On the basis of the hypothesis that such a lysosomal accumulation of iron might be due to erythrophagocytosis by migrating tissue-bound macrophages that later develop into foam cells, we designed an in vitro model system where human monocyte-derived macrophages were exposed to artificially aged, UV-exposed erythrocytes. The macrophages were then exposed to LDL in serum-and iron-free RPMI medium, occasionally in the presence of the potent iron-chelator desferrioxamine.
The capacity of macrophages to oxidise LDL was much enhanced following erythrophagocytosis, and the process was shown to involve secretion of iron. Consequently, LDL oxidation was greatly inhibited by desferrioxamine. We conclude that iron may be exocytosed by macrophages that previously had their lysosomal apparatus enriched with iron, e.g. due to erythrophagocytosis. Oxidation of LDL may result in ensuing foam cell-formation secondary to scavenger-receptor mediated endocytosis by macrophages.