Objective: Intimal hyperplasia is a vascular remodelling process that occurs after a vascular injury. The mechanisms involved in intimal hyperplasia are proliferation, dedifferentiation, and migration of medial smooth muscle cells towards the subintimal space. We postulated that gap junctions, which coordinate physiologic processes such as cell growth and differentiation, might participate in the development of intimal hyperplasia. Connexin43 (Cx43) expression levels may be altered in intimal hyperplasia, and we therefore evaluated the regulated expression of Cx43 in human saphenous veins in culture in the presence or not of fluvastatin, an inhibitor of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A reductase activity.
Methods: Segments of harvested human saphenous veins, obtained at the time of bypass graft, were opened longitudinally with the luminal surface uppermost and maintained in culture for 14 days. Vein fragments were then processed for histologic examination, neointimal thickness measurements, immunocytochemistry, RNA, and proteins analysis.
Results: Of the four connexins (Cx37, 40, 43, and 45), we focused on Cx43 and Cx40, which we found by real-time polymerase chain reaction to be expressed in the saphenous vein because they are the predominant connexins expressed by smooth muscle cells and endothelial cells. After 14 days of culture, histomorphometric analysis showed a significant increase in the intimal thickness as observed during the process of intimal hyperplasia. A time-course analysis revealed a progressive upregulation of Cx43 to reach a maximal increase of sixfold to eightfold at both transcript and protein levels after 14 days in culture. In contrast, the expression of Cx40, abundantly expressed in the endothelial cells, was not altered. Immunofluorescence showed a large increase in Cx43 within smooth muscle cell membranes of the media layer. The development of intimal hyperplasia in vitro was decreased in presence of fluvastatin and was associated with reduced Cx43 expression.
Conclusions: These data show that Cx43 is increased in vitro during the process of intimal hyperplasia and that fluvastatin could prevent this induction, supporting a critical role for Cx43-mediated gap-junctional communication in the human vein during the development of intimal hyperplasia.
Clinical relevance: Stenosis due to intimal hyperplasia is the most common cause of failure of venous bypass grafts. To better understand the development of intimal hyperplasia, we used an ex vivo organ culture model to study saphenous veins harvested from patients undergoing a lower limb bypass surgery. In this model, the morphologic and functional integrity of the vessel wall is maintained and significant intimal hyperplasia development occurs after 14 days in culture. We have postulated that gap junctions, which coordinate physiologic processes such as cell growth and differentiation, may participate in the development of intimal hyperplasia. Indeed, intimal hyperplasia consists of proliferation and migration of smooth muscle cells into the subendothelial space. Intercellular communication is responsible for the direct transfer of ions and small molecules from one cell to the other through gap-junction channels found at cell-cell appositions. No study to date has evaluated whether gap junctional communication is involved in the process of intimal hyperplasia in humans. This assertion was investigated by using the aforementioned organ culture model of intimal hyperplasia in human saphenous veins, and our data support a critical role for Cx43-mediated gap junctional communication in human vein during the development of intimal hyperplasia.