Extracellular matrix (ECM) is a tissue-specific macromolecular structure that provides physical support to tissues and is essential for normal organ function. In the lung, ECM plays an active role in shaping cell behavior both in health and disease by virtue of the contextual clues it imparts to cells. Qualities including dimensionality, molecular composition, and intrinsic stiffness all promote normal function of the lung ECM. Alterations in composition and/or modulation of stiffness of the focally injured or diseased lung ECM microenvironment plays a part in reparative processes performed by fibroblasts. Under conditions of remodeling or in disease states, inhomogeneous stiffening (or softening) of the pathologic ECM may both precede modifications in cell behavior and be a result of disease progression. The ability of ECM to stimulate further ECM production by fibroblasts and drive disease progression has potentially significant implications for mesenchymal stromal cell-based therapies; in the setting of pathologic ECM stiffness or composition, the therapeutic intent of progenitor cells may be subverted. Taken together, current data suggest that lung ECM actively contributes to health and disease; thus, mediators of cell-ECM signaling or factors that influence ECM stiffness may represent viable therapeutic targets in many lung disorders.
Keywords: cell shape; cellular mechanotransduction; disease progression; extracellular matrix; fibroblasts.