Background: Successful neovascularization requires that sprouting endothelial cells (ECs) integrate to form new vascular networks. However, architecturally defective, poorly integrated vessels with blind ends are typical of pathological angiogenesis induced by vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF), thereby limiting the utility of VEGF for therapeutic angiogenesis and aggravating ischemia-related pathologies. Here we investigated the possibility that over-exuberant calpain activity is responsible for aberrant VEGF neovessel architecture and integration. Calpains are a family of intracellular calcium-dependent, non-lysosomal cysteine proteases that regulate cellular functions through proteolysis of numerous substrates.
Methodology/principal findings: In a mouse skin model of VEGF-driven angiogenesis, retroviral transduction with dominant-negative (DN) calpain-I promoted neovessel integration and lumen formation, reduced blind ends, and improved vascular perfusion. Moderate doses of calpain inhibitor-I improved VEGF-driven angiogenesis similarly to DN calpain-I. Conversely, retroviral transduction with wild-type (WT) calpain-I abolished neovessel integration and lumen formation. In vitro, moderate suppression of calpain activity with DN calpain-I or calpain inhibitor-I increased the microtubule-stabilizing protein tau in endothelial cells (ECs), increased the average length of microtubules, increased actin cable length, and increased the interconnectivity of vascular cords. Conversely, WT calpain-I diminished tau, collapsed microtubules, disrupted actin cables, and inhibited integration of cord networks. Consistent with the critical importance of microtubules for vascular network integration, the microtubule-stabilizing agent taxol supported vascular cord integration whereas microtubule dissolution with nocodazole collapsed cord networks.
Conclusions/significance: These findings implicate VEGF-induction of calpain activity and impairment of cytoskeletal dynamics in the failure of VEGF-induced neovessels to form and integrate properly. Accordingly, calpain represents an important target for rectifying key vascular defects associated with pathological angiogenesis and for improving therapeutic angiogenesis with VEGF.