Background: Aortic valve stenosis is a sexually dimorphic disease, with women often presenting with sustained fibrosis and men with more extensive calcification. However, the intracellular molecular mechanisms that drive these clinically important sex differences remain underexplored.
Methods: Hydrogel biomaterials were designed to recapitulate key aspects of the valve tissue microenvironment and to serve as a culture platform for sex-specific valvular interstitial cells (VICs; precursors to profibrotic myofibroblasts). The hydrogel culture system was used to interrogate intracellular pathways involved in sex-dependent VIC-to-myofibroblast activation and deactivation. RNA sequencing was used to define pathways involved in driving sex-dependent activation. Interventions with small molecule inhibitors and siRNA transfections were performed to provide mechanistic insight into sex-specific cellular responses to microenvironmental cues, including matrix stiffness and exogenously delivered biochemical factors.
Results: In both healthy porcine and human aortic valves, female leaflets had higher baseline activation of the myofibroblast marker α-smooth muscle actin compared with male leaflets. When isolated and cultured, female porcine and human VICs had higher levels of basal α-smooth muscle actin stress fibers that further increased in response to the hydrogel matrix stiffness, both of which were higher than in male VICs. A transcriptomic analysis of male and female porcine VICs revealed Rho-associated protein kinase signaling as a potential driver of this sex-dependent myofibroblast activation. Furthermore, we found that genes that escape X-chromosome inactivation such as BMX and STS (encoding for Bmx nonreceptor tyrosine kinase and steroid sulfatase, respectively) partially regulate the elevated female myofibroblast activation through Rho-associated protein kinase signaling. This finding was confirmed by treating male and female VICs with endothelin-1 and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1, factors that are secreted by endothelial cells and known to drive myofibroblast activation through Rho-associated protein kinase signaling.
Conclusions: Together, in vivo and in vitro results confirm sex dependencies in myofibroblast activation pathways and implicate genes that escape X-chromosome inactivation in regulating sex differences in myofibroblast activation and subsequent aortic valve stenosis progression. Our results underscore the importance of considering sex as a biological variable to understand the molecular mechanisms of aortic valve stenosis and to help guide sex-based precision therapies.
Keywords: aortic valve stenosis; biocompatible materials; hydrogels; sex characteristics.