Atherosclerosis is now recognised as a chronic inflammatory disease occurring within the artery wall and ultimately responsible for myocardial infarction, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. A crucial step in atherogenesis is the infiltration of monocytes into the subendothelial space of large arteries where they differentiate into macrophages and become functionally active. Macrophage accumulation within plaques is a hallmark of all stages of atherosclerosis, indeed recent studies have shown their presence has the potential to act as a non-invasive marker of disease activity and plaque stability. Activated macrophages are major players in all stages of lesion development. They not only accumulate lipids but also express effector molecules that are pro-inflammatory, cytotoxic and chemotactic. Furthermore, they secrete enzymes that degrade extracellular matrix leading to plaque destabilisation and increased risk of rupture. However, macrophages are heterogeneous and when appropriately activated they have the potential to drive tissue remodelling and ultimately vascular repair. Pharmacological modulation of macrophage activities therefore represents an important strategy for the prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis and other inflammatory diseases. The aim of this review is to give a brief overview of our current understanding of macrophage activation, distribution and function within inflamed tissue. This will provide the basis for highlighting already available and future methods to exploit specifically activated macrophages as diagnostic and therapeutic targets for atherosclerosis.
Keywords: Macrophages, atherosclerosis, inflammation, classical activation, alternative activation, imaging, plaque stability
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