Liver X receptors (LXRs) α and β are transcriptional regulators of cholesterol homeostasis and potential targets for the development of antiatherosclerosis drugs. However, the specific roles of individual LXR isotypes in atherosclerosis and the pharmacological effects of synthetic agonists remain unclear. Previous work has shown that mice lacking LXRα accumulate cholesterol in the liver but not in peripheral tissues. In striking contrast, we demonstrate here that LXRα-/-apoE-/- mice exhibit extreme cholesterol accumulation in peripheral tissues, a dramatic increase in whole-body cholesterol burden, and accelerated atherosclerosis. The phenotype of these mice suggests that the level of LXR pathway activation in macrophages achieved by LXRβ and endogenous ligand is unable to maintain homeostasis in the setting of hypercholesterolemia. Surprisingly, however, a highly efficacious synthetic agonist was able to compensate for the loss of LXRα. Treatment of LXRα-/-apoE-/- mice with synthetic LXR ligand ameliorates the cholesterol overload phenotype and reduces atherosclerosis. These observations indicate that LXRα has an essential role in maintaining peripheral cholesterol homeostasis in the context of hypercholesterolemia and provide in vivo support for drug development strategies targeting LXRβ.
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