Circulation. 2023 Dec 28. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.123.064974. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: Genetic and experimental studies support a causal involvement of IL-6 (interleukin-6) signaling in atheroprogression. Although trials targeting IL-6 signaling are underway, any benefits must be balanced against an impaired host immune response. Dissecting the mechanisms that mediate the effects of IL-6 signaling on atherosclerosis could offer insights about novel drug targets with more specific effects.
METHODS: Leveraging data from 522 681 individuals, we constructed a genetic instrument of 26 variants in the gene encoding the IL-6R (IL-6 receptor) that proxied for pharmacological IL-6R inhibition. Using Mendelian randomization, we assessed its effects on 3281 plasma proteins quantified with an aptamer-based assay in the INTERVAL cohort (n=3301). Using mediation Mendelian randomization, we explored proteomic mediators of the effects of genetically proxied IL-6 signaling on coronary artery disease, large artery atherosclerotic stroke, and peripheral artery disease. For significant mediators, we tested associations of their circulating levels with incident cardiovascular events in a population-based study (n=1704) and explored the histological, transcriptomic, and cellular phenotypes correlated with their expression levels in samples from human atherosclerotic lesions.
RESULTS: We found significant effects of genetically proxied IL-6 signaling on 70 circulating proteins involved in cytokine production/regulation and immune cell recruitment/differentiation, which correlated with the proteomic effects of pharmacological IL-6R inhibition in a clinical trial. Among the 70 significant proteins, genetically proxied circulating levels of CXCL10 (C-X-C motif chemokine ligand 10) were associated with risk of coronary artery disease, large artery atherosclerotic stroke, and peripheral artery disease, with up to 67% of the effects of genetically downregulated IL-6 signaling on these end points mediated by decreases in CXCL10. Higher midlife circulating CXCL10 levels were associated with a larger number of cardiovascular events over 20 years, whereas higher CXCL10 expression in human atherosclerotic lesions correlated with a larger lipid core and a transcriptomic profile reflecting immune cell infiltration, adaptive immune system activation, and cytokine signaling.
CONCLUSIONS: Integrating multiomics data, we found a proteomic signature of IL-6 signaling activation and mediators of its effects on cardiovascular disease. Our analyses suggest the interferon-γ-inducible chemokine CXCL10 to be a potentially causal mediator for atherosclerosis in 3 vascular compartments and, as such, could serve as a promising drug target for atheroprotection.