Increased aortic stiffness is a fundamental manifestation of hypertension. However, the molecular mechanisms involved remain largely unknown. We tested the hypothesis that abnormal intrinsic vascular smooth muscle cell (VSMC) mechanical properties in large arteries, but not in distal arteries, contribute to the pathogenesis of aortic stiffening in hypertension, mediated by the serum response factor (SRF)/myocardin signalling pathway.Methods and results
Four month old male spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) and normotensive Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) rats were studied. Using atomic force microscopy, significant VSMC stiffening was observed in the large conducting aorta compared with the distal arteries in SHR (P < 0.001), however, this regional variation was not observed in WKY rats (P > 0.4). The increase of VSMC stiffness was accompanied by a parallel increase in the expression of SRF by 9.8-fold and of myocardin by 10.5-fold in thoracic aortic VSMCs from SHR vs. WKY rats, resulting in a significant increase of downstream stiffness-associated genes (all, P < 0.01 vs. WKY). Inhibition of SRF/myocardin expression selectively attenuated aortic VSMC stiffening, and normalized downstream targets in VSMCs isolated from SHR but not from WKY rats. In vivo, 2 weeks of treatment with SRF/myocardin inhibitor delivered by subcutaneous osmotic minipump significantly reduced aortic stiffness and then blood pressure in SHR but not in WKY rats, although concomitant changes in aortic wall remodelling were not detected during this time frame.Conclusions
SRF/myocardin pathway acts as a pivotal mediator of aortic VSMC mechanical properties and plays a central role in the pathological aortic stiffening in hypertension. Attenuation of aortic VSMC stiffening by pharmacological inhibition of SRF/myocardin signalling presents a novel therapeutic strategy for the treatment of hypertension by targeting the cellular contributors to aortic stiffness.