Aims/hypothesis: Vascular calcification is a prominent feature of both atherosclerosis and diabetes, and is clinically associated with osteoporosis. The expression of bone-regulatory factors and the impact of oxidative stress in aortic calcification are well-documented. Recently, nuclear factor of activated T cells (NFAT) cytoplasmic, calcineurin-dependent 1 (NFATc1) was identified in calcified aortic valves and has been implicated in vascular calcification. Therefore, we assessed the mechanisms of osteogenic transdifferentiation of vascular smooth muscle cells induced by oxidised LDL (oxLDL) and evaluated the role of NFAT in this process.
Methods: Human coronary artery smooth muscle cells (HCASMCs) were cultured for 21 days in medium supplemented with oxLDL. NFAT was inhibited using the NFAT inhibitor VIVIT, or by knockdown with small interfering RNA (siRNA). Osteogenic transdifferentiation was assessed by gene expression, matrix mineralisation and alkaline phosphatase activity.
Results: Exposure to oxLDL caused the transformation of HCASMCs towards an osteoblast-like phenotype based on increased mineral matrix formation and RUNX2 expression. NFATc1 blockade completely prevented oxLDL-induced osteogenic transformation of HCASMCs as well as oxLDL-induced stimulation of osteoblast differentiation. In contrast, matrix mineralisation induced by osteogenic medium was independent of the NFAT pathway. Of note, oxLDL-conditioned medium from HCASMCs transferred to bone cells promoted osteoblast mineralisation. Consistent with these in vitro findings, diabetic rats with a twofold increase in oxidised lipid levels displayed higher aortic calcium concentrations and increased expression of osteogenic markers and production of NFATc1.
Conclusions/interpretation: Our results identify the NFAT signalling pathway as a novel regulator of oxLDL-induced transdifferentiation of vascular smooth muscle cells towards an osteoblast-like phenotype.