Stress-induced alteration in endothelial cells (ECs) integrity precedes the development of atherosclerosis. Previous studies showed that the soluble recombinant thrombomodulin (rTM) not only increases ECs proliferation but also exerts anti-apoptotic activity in ECs. However, the functional significance of soluble rTM on autophagy-related apoptosis in ECs is still undetermined. Implicating a cytoprotective role for rTM in persistent serum starvation (SS)-induced autophagy in cultured ECs, we found that treatment of rTM decreased the expression of SS-induced autophagy-related proteins, ATG5 and LC3, and the formation of autophagosomes through activation of AKT/mTOR pathway. In addition, treatment of rTM decreased SS-induced EC apoptosis, but this effect of rTM could not be recapitulated by co-treatment with a potent autophagy inducer, rapamycin and in ECs with ATG5 knockdown. In human atherosclerosis specimens, expression of autophagy markers, ATG13 and LC3, were more abundant in aortic intimal ECs with severe atherosclerosis than those without atherosclerosis. Moreover, compared to saline treatment group, administration of rTM reduced LC3 and ATG13 expression, intimal EC apoptosis, and atherosclerotic lesion severity in the aorta of apolipoprotein E deficient mice. In conclusion, treatment with rTM suppressed stress-induced autophagy overactivation in ECs, provided ECs protective effects, and decreased atherosclerosis in apolipoprotein E deficient mice.
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