Aims: Embryonic vascular smooth muscle cells (vSMCs) have a synthetic phenotype; in adults, they commit to the mature contractile phenotype. Research shows that human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) differentiate into vSMCs, but nobody has yet documented their maturation into the synthetic or contractile phenotypes. This study sought to control the fate decisions of hPSC derivatives to guide their maturation towards a desired phenotype.
Methods and results: The long-term differentiation of hPSCs, including the integration-free-induced PSC line, in high serum with platelet-derived growth factor-BB (PDGF-BB) and transforming growth factor-β1, allowed us to induce the synthetic vSMC (Syn-vSMC) phenotype with increased extracellular matrix (ECM) protein expression and reduced expression of contractile proteins. By monitoring the expression of two contractile proteins, smooth muscle myosin heavy chain (SMMHC) and elastin, we show that serum starvation and PDGF-BB deprivation caused maturation towards the contractile vSMC (Con-vSMC) phenotype. Con-vSMCs differ distinctively from Syn-vSMC derivatives in their condensed morphology, prominent filamentous arrangement of cytoskeleton proteins, production and assembly of elastin, low proliferation, numerous and active caveolae, enlarged endoplasmic reticulum, and ample stress fibres and bundles, as well as their high contractility. When transplanted subcutaneously into nude mice, the human Con-vSMCs aligned next to the host's growing functional vasculature, with occasional circumferential wrapping and vascular tube narrowing.
Conclusion: We control hPSC differentiation into synthetic or contractile phenotypes by using appropriate concentrations of relevant factors. Deriving Con-vSMCs from an integration-free hiPSC line may prove useful for regenerative therapy involving blood vessel differentiation and stabilization.