Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of death worldwide and most often due to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory process that involves the arteries, inclouding those that supply blood to the heart muscle. Although inflammation is an important contributing factor to atherosclerosis, the mechanisms are not fully understood. One mechanism contributing to atherogenesis may involve some infectious microorganisms such as cytomegalovirus (CMV). In atherosclerosis, the arterial wall becomes infiltrated with lipids followed by different types of leukocytes and inflammatory mediators (atherogenesis). Leukocytes recirculate continuously between the blood and lymphoid organs, such as lymph nodes, where the adaptive immune response is started and regulated.
The general aim of this thesis was to increase the understanding of associations between lymphocyte populations and different conditions of CAD (unstable and stable). To assess changes over time, a longitudinal follow up design was mostly used. Therefore, also perspectives of longitudinal variation were included in the thesis.
Paper I showed that flow cytometric evaluation of lymphocyte populations is a robust technique that can be used in longitudinal studies, both in clinical and research settings. It was also shown that the time of sampling over the year did not have a major impact on the findings.
In paper II, thoracic lymph nodes were investigated to assess whether CAD-associated changes were more prominent in comparison with blood. As expected, there were several major differences in lymphocyte composition between lymph nodes and blood. However, the analysis of thoracic lymph nodes did not reveal any further changes that were not detected in blood. Thus, blood is still the most reliable compartment for studies of lymphocyte populations in CAD since it is not possible to examine the local findings in the artery wall.
Natural killer (NK) cells are innate lymphocytes with both regulatory and effector functions. In paper II and III we confirmed previous findings that CAD patients have lower proportions of NK cells in blood. However, the NK subtype and cytokine profile (paper III, measured by subtype markers and intra-cellular cytokine staining) did not differ between patients and controls. During a 12-month follow-up, the proportions of NK cells increased, although not in all patients. Failure to reconstitute NK cell levels was associated with several components of the metabolic syndrome and with a persistent low-grade inflammation as measured by plasma IL-6 levels. The findings support the notion of a protective role for NK cells in inflammation.
CD4+ but not CD8+ T cells were significantly increased in patients with both unstable and stable conditions compared with healthy individuals (paper IV). Subpopulations of CD4+ T cells (CD4+CD28null) have previously been associated with CAD. However, we show that CD28null and CD28null57+ cells within the CD4+ and CD8+ T cell populations were similar in CAD patients and healthy controls. Instead, CMV seropositivity was the major determinant of expanded CD28null and CD57+ T cell fractions in both patients and healthy individuals. During the 1 year follow up the proportion of CD4+CD28null and CD8+CD28null cells increased in patients, which may reflect an accelerated immunological ageing occurring after the cardiac event.