Cardiac fibroblasts and their activated derivatives, myofibroblasts, play a critical role in wound healing after myocardial injury and often contribute to long-term pathological outcomes, such as excessive fibrosis. Thus, defining the microenvironmental factors that regulate the phenotype of cardiac fibroblasts and myofibroblasts could lead to new therapeutic strategies. Both chemical and biomechanical cues have previously been shown to induce myofibroblast differentiation in many organs and species. For example, transforming growth factor beta 1, a cytokine secreted by neutrophils, and rigid extracellular matrix environments have both been shown to promote differentiation. However, the relative contributions of transforming growth factor beta 1 and extracellular matrix rigidity, two hallmark cues in many pathological myocardial microenvironments, to the phenotype of human cardiac fibroblasts are unclear. We hypothesized that transforming growth factor beta 1 and rigid extracellular matrix environments would potentially have a synergistic effect on the differentiation of human cardiac fibroblasts to myofibroblasts. To test this, we seeded primary human adult cardiac fibroblasts onto coverslips coated with polydimethylsiloxane of various elastic moduli, introduced transforming growth factor beta 1, and longitudinally quantified cell phenotype by measuring expression of α-smooth muscle actin, the most robust indicator of myofibroblasts. Our data indicate that, although extracellular matrix rigidity influenced differentiation after one day of transforming growth factor beta 1 treatment, ultimately transforming growth factor beta 1 superseded extracellular matrix rigidity as the primary regulator of myofibroblast differentiation. We also measured expression of POSTN, FAP, and FSP1, proposed secondary indicators of fibroblast/myofibroblast phenotypes. Although these genes partially trended with α-smooth muscle actin expression, they were relatively inconsistent. Finally, we demonstrated that activated myofibroblasts incompletely revert to a fibroblast phenotype after they are re-plated onto new surfaces without transforming growth factor beta 1, suggesting differentiation is partially reversible. Our results provide new insights into how microenvironmental cues affect human cardiac fibroblast differentiation in the context of myocardial pathology, which is important for identifying effective therapeutic targets and dictating supporting cell phenotypes for engineered human cardiac disease models. Impact statement Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Many forms of heart disease are associated with fibrosis, which increases extracellular matrix (ECM) rigidity and compromises cardiac output. Fibrotic tissue is synthesized primarily by myofibroblasts differentiated from fibroblasts. Thus, defining the cues that regulate myofibroblast differentiation is important for understanding the mechanisms of fibrosis. However, previous studies have focused on non-human cardiac fibroblasts and have not tested combinations of chemical and mechanical cues. We tested the effects of TGF-β1, a cytokine secreted by immune cells after injury, and ECM rigidity on the differentiation of human cardiac fibroblasts to myofibroblasts. Our results indicate that differentiation is initially influenced by ECM rigidity, but is ultimately superseded by TGF-β1. This suggests that targeting TGF-β signaling pathways in cardiac fibroblasts may have therapeutic potential for attenuating fibrosis, even in rigid microenvironments. Additionally, our approach can be leveraged to engineer more precise multi-cellular human cardiac tissue models.
Keywords: Extracellular matrix; elastic modulus; transforming growth factor beta 1; α-smooth muscle actin.