Targeting extracellular matrix stiffness to attenuate disease: From molecular mechanisms to clinical trials
Tissues stiffen during aging and during the pathological progression of cancer, fibrosis, and cardiovascular disease. Extracellular matrix stiffness is emerging as a prominent mechanical cue that precedes disease and drives its progression by altering cellular behaviors. Targeting extracellular matrix mechanics, by preventing or reversing tissue stiffening or interrupting the cellular response, is a therapeutic approach with clinical potential. Major drivers of changes to the mechanical properties of the extracellular matrix include phenotypically converted myofibroblasts, transforming growth factor β (TGFβ), and matrix cross-linking. Potential pharmacological interventions to overcome extracellular matrix stiffening are emerging clinically. Aside from targeting stiffening directly, alternative approaches to mitigate the effects of increased matrix stiffness aim to identify and inhibit the downstream cellular response to matrix stiffness. Therapeutic interventions that target tissue stiffening are discussed in the context of their limitations, preclinical drug development efforts, and clinical trials.