1. Vascular cells have evolved to use reactive oxygen species (ROS), such as superoxide and hydrogen peroxide, as signalling molecules. Under physiological conditions, ROS are important regulators of cell cycle, protein kinase activity and gene expression. However, in vascular disease states, such as hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia, excessive production of ROS may overwhelm the anti-oxidant defence mechanisms of cells, resulting in ‘oxidative stress’, damage to the artery wall and, ultimately, development of atherosclerotic plaques.
2. The primary source of ROS in the vasculature is NADPH oxidase. There appear to be at least three isoforms of NADPH oxidase expressed in the vascular wall, each differing with respect to the flavin-containing catalytic subunit it uses to transfer electrons from NADPH to molecular oxygen. Thus, although endothelial cells and adventitial fibroblasts express a gp91phox-containing NADPH oxidase similar to that originally identified in phagocytes, vascular smooth muscle cells may rely on novel homologues of gp91phox, namely Nox1 and Nox4, to produce superoxide.
3. Controversy remains over which isoform(s) of NADPH oxidase is responsible for the oxidative stress associated with vascular diseases. We and others have shown that although gp91phox mRNA expression is upregulated during atherogenesis in human and animal models, expression of the Nox4 subunit remains unchanged. Nox1 expression is also likely to be increased in diseased arteries; however, its relative level of expression, at least at the mRNA level, appears to be markedly lower than that of the other gp91phox homologues, even after upregulation.
4. Whether these findings suggest that a gp91phox-containing NADPH oxidase is more important than either Nox4 or Nox1 in vascular disease awaits studies examining relative protein expression and enzyme kinetics of each subunit, as well as the effects of targeted gene deletion of each of these gp91phox homologues on atherogenesis.