Microparticles are small membrane vesicles that are released from cells upon activation or during apoptosis. Cellular microparticles in body fluids constitute a heterogeneous population, differing in cellular origin, numbers, size, antigenic composition and functional properties. Microparticles support coagulation by exposure of negatively charged phospholipids and sometimes tissue factor, the initiator of coagulation in vivo. Microparticles may transfer bioactive molecules to other cells or microparticles, thereby stimulating cells to produce cytokines, cell-adhesion molecules, growth factors and tissue factor, and modulate endothelial functions. Microparticles derived from various cells, most notably platelets but also leucocytes, lymphocytes, erythrocytes and endothelial cells, are present in the circulation of healthy subjects. Rare hereditary syndromes with disturbances in membrane vesiculation leading to a decreased numbers of microparticles clinically present with a bleeding tendency. In contrast, elevated numbers of microparticles are encountered in patients with a great variety of diseases with vascular involvement and hypercoagulability, including disseminated intravascular coagulation, acute coronary syndromes, peripheral arterial disease, diabetes mellitus and systemic inflammatory disease. Finally, microparticles are a major component of human atherosclerotic plaques.
In view of their functional properties, cell-derived microparticles may be an important intermediate in the cascade of cellular and plasmatic dysfunctions underlying the process of atherogenesis.