Cholesterol is an essential component of all cellular membranes and is also required for synthesis of vitamin D and steroid hormones. Since it is poorly soluble in water, it is mainly transported through the bloodstream within lipoproteins – complex spherical particles composed of amphiphilic proteins and lipids whose outward-facing surfaces are water-soluble and inward-facing surfaces are lipid-soluble. Triglycerides and cholesterol esters are carried internally whilst phospholipids and cholesterol are transported in the surface monolayer of the lipoprotein particle. Several types of lipoproteins are found in blood, comprised of different apolipoproteins (which target specific tissues via receptor recognition) and with different capacities for cholesterol. These are usually referred to by their densities – the higher the ratio of cholesterol to lipoprotein, the lower the density. This gives rise to the so-called “bad cholesterol” (low density lipoprotein, LDL-cholesterol) and “good cholesterol” (HDL-cholesterol).
Problems arise when levels of the various lipoproteins are out of balance. Increased circulating levels of LDL-cholesterol are associated with the formation of foam cells, which can become trapped in the walls of blood vessels and contribute to artherosclerotic plaque formation leading to heart attacks and strokes. Conversely, HDL transports lipids to the liver for disposal and removes cholesterol from peripheral tissues, including the foam cells that form atherosclerotic plaques.
A new study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has now identified micro RNAs (miRNAs) that appear to play an important role in regulation of cholesterol/lipid levels. The team found that two members of the miR-33 family (miR-33a and miR-33b) target the ATP-binding cassette transporter A1 (ABCA1), an important regulator of HDL synthesis and reverse cholesterol transport, for posttranscriptional repression. Using antisense inhibition of miR-33 in mouse and human cell lines the researchers demonstrated up-regulation of ABCA1 expression and increased cholesterol efflux. Further, treatment of mice on a western-type diet with the antisense inhibitor resulted in elevated plasma HDL without affecting levels of LDL. The findings suggest that miR-33 may represent a therapeutic target for cardiovascular diseases.
The study is published in Science.