Cardiac fibrosis is a hallmark of heart failure for which there is no effective pharmacological therapy. By genetic modification and in vivo inhibitor approaches it was suggested that the Rho-associated kinases (ROCK1 and ROCK2) are involved in pro-fibrotic signalling in cardiac fibroblasts and that they may serve as targets for anti-fibrotic therapies. We demonstrate that simultaneous inhibition of ROCK1 and ROCK2 strongly interfered with tissue formation and their biomechanical properties in a model of engineered connective tissue (ECT), comprised of cardiac fibroblasts and collagen. These effects were observed with both rat and human ECT. Inhibitors of different chemistries, including the isoquinoline inhibitors Fasudil and H1152P as well as the pyrazol-phenyl inhibitor SR-3677, showed comparable effects. By combined treatment of ECT with TGF-β and H1152P, we could identify ROCK as a mediator of TGF-β-dependent tissue stiffening. Moreover, expression analyses suggested that lysyl oxidase (LOX) is a downstream target of the ROCK-actin-MRTF/SRF pathway and inhibition of this pathway by Latrunculin A and CCG-203971 showed similar anti-fibrotic effects in the ECT model as ROCK inhibitors. In line with the collagen crosslinking function of LOX, its inhibition by β-aminopropionitrile resulted in reduced ECT stiffness, but let tissue compaction unaffected. Finally, we show that ROCK inhibition also reduced the compaction and stiffness of engineered heart muscle tissues. Our results indicate that pharmacological inhibition of ROCK has a strong anti-fibrotic potential which is in part due to a decrease in the expression of the collagen crosslinking enzyme lysyl oxidase.
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