Smooth muscle cells of human veins show an increased response to injury at valve sites

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Venous valves are essential but are prone to injury, thrombosis, and fibrosis. We compared the behavior and gene expression of smooth muscle cells (SMCs) in the valve sinus vs nonvalve sites to elucidate biologic differences associated with vein valves.


Tissue explants of fresh human saphenous veins were prepared, and the migration of SMCs from explants of valve sinus vs nonvalve sinus areas was measured. Proliferation and death of SMCs were determined by staining for Ki67 and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labeling. Proliferation and migration of passaged valve vs nonvalve SMCs were determined by cell counts and using microchemotaxis chambers. Global gene expression in valve vs nonvalve intima-media was determined by RNA sequencing.


Valve SMCs demonstrated greater proliferation in tissue explants compared with nonvalve SMCs (19.3% ± 5.4% vs 6.8% ± 2.0% Ki67-positive nuclei at 4 days, respectively; mean ± standard error of the mean, five veins; P < .05). This was also true for migration (18.2 ± 2.7 vs 7.5 ± 3.0 migrated SMCs/explant at 6 days, respectively; 24 veins, 15 explants/vein; P < .0001). Cell death was not different (39.6% ± 16.1% vs 41.5% ± 16.0% terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labeling-positive cells, respectively, at 4 days, five veins). Cultured valve SMCs also proliferated faster than nonvalve SMCs in response to platelet-derived growth factor subunit BB (2.9 ± 0.2-fold vs 2.1 ± 0.2-fold of control, respectively; P < .001; n = 5 pairs of cells). This was also true for migration (6.5 ± 1.2-fold vs 4.4 ± 0.8-fold of control, respectively; P < .001; n = 7 pairs of cells). Blockade of fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) inhibited the increased responses of valve SMCs but had no effect on nonvalve SMCs. Exogenous FGF2 increased migration of valve but not of nonvalve SMCs. Unlike in the isolated, cultured cells, blockade of FGF2 in the tissue explants did not block migration of valve or nonvalve SMCs from the explants. Thirty-seven genes were differentially expressed by valve compared with nonvalve intimal-medial tissue (11 veins). Peptide-mediated inhibition of SEMA3A, one of the differentially expressed genes, increased the number of migrated SMCs of valve but not of nonvalve explants.


Valve compared with nonvalve SMCs have greater rates of migration and proliferation, which may in part explain the propensity for pathologic lesion formation in valves. Whereas FGF2 mediates these effects in cultured SMCs, the mediators of these stimulatory effects in the valve wall tissue remain unclear but may be among the differentially expressed genes discovered in this study. One of these genes, SEMA3A, mediates a valve-specific inhibitory effect on the injury response of valve SMCs.

Clinical Relevance:

Valves are a common site of venous thrombosis and of vein graft lesions. However, there is essentially nothing known about the response to injury of either animal or human valve sinus cells. The novel observation that the smooth muscle cells of the human valve sinus exhibit an exaggerated response to injury compared with smooth muscle cells of the nonvalve wall may help explain the propensity of the valves to fail after thrombotic events and for the valve wall to fail in arterial bypass grafts.

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