Objective: We established a co-culture system to investigate endothelial cell-fibroblast interaction in scleroderma (systemic sclerosis, SSc). Such a system allows reciprocal interaction between these cells. The pattern of phenotypic modulation for normal and SSc fibroblasts in co-culture was compared.
Methods: A virally transformed human umbilical vein endothelial cell (HUVEC) derived cell line (1E-7) was cultured on nitrocellulose membrane inserts above dermal fibroblast monolayers. The effect of co-culture on fibroblast number, [3H]-thymidine ([3H]-TdR) incorporation, and collagen (type I) production were compared for 10 SSc and 5 control cell lines. Co-culture with the epithelial lines A549 and A431, and nontransformed HUVEC, was also investigated.
Results: We observed a statistically significant increase in cell number and a reduction in collagen production for SSc, but not control, fibroblasts co-cultured with endothelial cells. This co-culture also promoted [3H]-TdR incorporation in both SSc and control fibroblasts. While epithelial cell lines did not influence fibroblast cell number, collagen production by SSc fibroblasts was diminished by A549.
Conclusions: Endothelial cell derived soluble factors modulated fibroblast properties in co-culture, and the different response of SSc compared with normal fibroblasts provides further evidence for a link between endothelial and fibroblast dysfunction in this disease. However, similar effects on SSc fibroblast collagen production were also observed for some epithelial cells, suggesting that modulation of fibroblast properties is not restricted to cells of endothelial origin.