Hypercholesterolemia is an important risk factor for the development of atherosclerosis. Late vein graft failure has been attributed to a combination of both intimal hyperplasia and atherosclerosis. This study examines the effect of hypercholesterolemia on the early morphology and vasomotor function of experimental vein grafts. Forty New Zealand White rabbits received either a 1% cholesterol diet (n = 24; HC) or a standard diet (n = 16; CON) for 4 weeks before operation and thereafter until harvest. All animals underwent a reversed vein common carotid artery bypass. The vein grafts and contralateral veins were harvested at 2 and 4 weeks after operation in both groups for either histological and morphometric analysis (n = 8 for each group) or for in vitro isometric tension studies using serotonin (5-HT), norepinephrine (NE), bradykinin (BK), and endothelin-1 (ET) and following NE precontraction, relaxation in response to acetylcholine (ACh) and sodium nitroprusside (SNP). Serum cholesterollevels were measured after 4, 6, and 8 weeks of the cholesterol diet. Serum cholesterol concentrations were 20 to 30 times higher than controls in the hypercholesterolemic animals at all times. The intimal area of the grafts in the HC group increased by twofold at 2 weeks and threefold at 4 weeks compared to corresponding controls. In contrast to the CON vein grafts, the intima of the vein grafts from HC consisted mainly of lipid-laden smooth muscle cells with scattered interspersed macrophages and occasional lipid plaques between the intima and the media. Medial areas were similar in all grafts. HC grafts became progressively more sensitive to 5-HT at 2 and 4 weeks. A supersensitivity to NE and BK developed at 4 weeks in HC grafts. There was no change in sensitivity to ET. While no graft relaxed to ACh, HC grafts contracted at low doses. All grafts responded to SNP in a dose-dependent manner. In contrast to CON veins, HC veins demonstrated an increase in sensitivity to NE and a contractile response to 5-HT (at 4 weeks only). HC veins did not relax in a dose-dependent manner in response to ACh. No changes in the morphology of HC veins were noted. HC produces changes in the structure and associated vasomotor abnormalities of vein grafts. Closely related functional changes also occur in contralateral veins. HC appears to induce intrinsic changes in smooth muscle cells which are linked to a greater proliferative and abnormal vasomotor capability. Clinically, applications of vigorous anti-HC regimens perioperatively may be beneficial in maintaining patency over the longer term.
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