Single-Cell Genomics Reveals a Novel Cell State During Smooth Muscle Cell Phenotypic Switching and Potential Therapeutic Targets for Atherosclerosis in Mouse and Human

Circulation. 2020 Nov 24;142(21):2060-2075. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048378. Epub 2020 Sep 23.


Background: Smooth muscle cells (SMCs) play significant roles in atherosclerosis via phenotypic switching, a pathological process in which SMC dedifferentiation, migration, and transdifferentiation into other cell types. Yet how SMCs contribute to the pathophysiology of atherosclerosis remains elusive.

Methods: To reveal the trajectories of SMC transdifferentiation during atherosclerosis and to identify molecular targets for disease therapy, we combined SMC fate mapping and single-cell RNA sequencing of both mouse and human atherosclerotic plaques. We also performed cell biology experiments on isolated SMC-derived cells, conducted integrative human genomics, and used pharmacological studies targeting SMC-derived cells both in vivo and in vitro.

Results: We found that SMCs transitioned to an intermediate cell state during atherosclerosis, which was also found in human atherosclerotic plaques of carotid and coronary arteries. SMC-derived intermediate cells, termed "SEM" cells (stem cell, endothelial cell, monocyte), were multipotent and could differentiate into macrophage-like and fibrochondrocyte-like cells, as well as return toward the SMC phenotype. Retinoic acid (RA) signaling was identified as a regulator of SMC to SEM cell transition, and RA signaling was dysregulated in symptomatic human atherosclerosis. Human genomics revealed enrichment of genome-wide association study signals for coronary artery disease in RA signaling target gene loci and correlation between coronary artery disease risk alleles and repressed expression of these genes. Activation of RA signaling by all-trans RA, an anticancer drug for acute promyelocytic leukemia, blocked SMC transition to SEM cells, reduced atherosclerotic burden, and promoted fibrous cap stability.

Conclusions: Integration of cell-specific fate mapping, single-cell genomics, and human genetics adds novel insights into the complexity of SMC biology and reveals regulatory pathways for therapeutic targeting of SMC transitions in atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

Keywords: atherosclerosis; cardiovascular disease; retinoic acid signaling; single-cell RNA sequencing; smooth muscle cell.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Atherosclerosis / genetics*
  • Atherosclerosis / pathology*
  • Atherosclerosis / therapy
  • Cell Dedifferentiation / physiology
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology*
  • Cell Movement / physiology
  • Cell Transdifferentiation / physiology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Female
  • Genetic Therapy / trends
  • Genomics / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Myocytes, Smooth Muscle / pathology*
  • Myocytes, Smooth Muscle / physiology
  • Phenotype*
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA / methods