An abnormal production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the subsequent decrease in vascular bioavailability of nitric oxide (NO) have long been proposed to be the common pathogenetic mechanism of the endothelial dysfunction, resulting from diverse cardiovascular risk factors such as hypercholesterolaemia, diabetes mellitus, chronic smoking, metabolic syndrome, and hypertension. Superoxide produced by the nicotinamide dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) oxidase, mitochondrial sources, or the xanthine oxidase may react with NO, thereby resulting in excessive formation of peroxynitrite, a reactive nitrogen species that has been demonstrated to accelerate the atherosclerotic process by causing direct structural damage and by causing further ROS production. Despite this sound biological rationale and a number of pre-clinical and clinical lines of evidence, studies testing the effects of classical antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, or folic acid in combination with vitamin E have been disappointing. Rather, substances such as statins, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, or AT1-receptor blockers, which possess indirect antioxidant properties mediated by the stimulation of NO production and simultaneous inhibition of superoxide production (e.g. from the NADPH oxidase), have been shown to improve vascular function in pre-clinical and clinical studies and to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events in patients with cardiovascular disease. Today, oxidative stress remains an attractive target for cardiovascular prevention and therapy. However, a deeper understanding of its source, and of its role in vascular pathology, is necessary before new trials are attempted.
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