Deciphering the extracellular signals that regulate SMC differentiation from stem cells is vital to further our understanding of the pathogenesis of vascular disease and for development of cell-based therapies and tissue engineering. Hyaluronan (HA) has emerged as an important component of the stem cell niche, however its role during stem cell differentiation is a complicated and inadequately defined process. This study aimed to investigate the role of HA in embryonic stem cell (ESC) differentiation toward a SMC lineage. ESCs were seeded on collagen-IV in differentiation medium to generate ESC-derived SMCs (esSMCs). Differentiation coincided with increased HA synthase (HAS) 2 expression, accumulation of extracellular HA and its assembly into pericellular matrices. Inhibition of HA synthesis by 4-methylumbelliferone (4MU), removal of the HA coat by hyaluronidase (HYAL) or HAS2 knockdown led to abrogation of SMC gene expression. HA activates ERK1/2 and suppresses EGFR signaling pathways via its principle receptor, CD44. EGFR inactivation coincided with increased binding to CD44, which was further augmented by addition of high molecular weight (HMW)-HA either exogenously or via HAS2 overexpression through adenoviral gene transfer. HMW-HA-stimulated esSMCs displayed a functional role in vascular tissue engineering ex vivo, vasculogenesis in a matrigel plug model and SMC accumulation in neointimal lesions of vein grafts in mice. These findings demonstrate that HAS2-induced HA synthesis and organization drives ESC-SMC differentiation. Thus, remodeling of the HA microenvironment is a critical step in directing stem cell differentiation toward a vascular lineage, highlighting HA as a potential target for treatment of vascular diseases.
- Smooth muscle cells
- Stem cells