Endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition contributes to endothelial dysfunction and dermal fibrosis in systemic sclerosis

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Abstract

Objective

Systemic sclerosis (SSc) features multiorgan fibrosis orchestrated predominantly by activated myofibroblasts. Endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EndoMT) is a transdifferentiation by which endothelial cells (ECs) lose their specific morphology/markers and acquire myofibroblast-like features. Here, we determined the possible contribution of EndoMT to the pathogenesis of dermal fibrosis in SSc and two mouse models.

Methods

Skin sections were immunostained for endothelial CD31 or vascular endothelial (VE)-cadherin in combination with α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) myofibroblast marker. Dermal microvascular ECs (dMVECs) were prepared from SSc and healthy skin (SSc-dMVECs and H-dMVECs). H-dMVECs were treated with transforming growth factor-β1 (TGFβ1) or SSc and healthy sera. Endothelial/mesenchymal markers were assessed by real-time PCR, immunoblotting and immunofluorescence. Cell contractile phenotype was assayed by collagen gel contraction.

Results

Cells in intermediate stages of EndoMT were identified in dermal vessels of either patients with SSc or bleomycin-induced and urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor (uPAR)-deficient mouse models. At variance with H-dMVECs, SSc-dMVECs exhibited a spindle-shaped appearance, co-expression of lower levels of CD31 and VE-cadherin with myofibroblast markers (α-SMA+ stress fibres, S100A4 and type I collagen), constitutive nuclear localisation of the EndoMT driver Snail1 and an ability to effectively contract collagen gels. Treatment of H-dMVECs either with SSc sera or TGFβ1 resulted in the acquisition of a myofibroblast-like morphology and contractile phenotype and downregulation of endothelial markers in parallel with the induction of mesenchymal markers. Matrix metalloproteinase-12-dependent uPAR cleavage was implicated in the induction of EndoMT by SSc sera.

Conclusions

In SSc, EndoMT may be a crucial event linking endothelial dysfunction and development of dermal fibrosis.

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