Experimental Approach: Human aortic-VSMCs were seeded onto polyacrylamide hydrogels whose rigidity mimicked either healthy (12 kPa) or aged/diseased (72 kPa) aortae. VSMCs were treated with pharmacological agents prior to agonist stimulation to identify regulators of VSMC volume regulation.
Key Results: On pliable matrices, VSMCs contracted and decreased in cell area. Meanwhile, on rigid matrices VSMCs displayed a hypertrophic-like response, increasing in area and volume. Piezo1 activation stimulated increased VSMC volume by promoting calcium ion influx and subsequent activation of PKC and aquaporin-1. Pharmacological blockade of this pathway prevented the enhanced VSMC volume response on rigid matrices whilst maintaining contractility on pliable matrices. Importantly, both piezo1 and aquaporin-1 gene expression were upregulated during VSMC phenotypic modulation in atherosclerosis and after carotid ligation.
Conclusions and Implications: In response to extracellular matrix rigidity, VSMC volume is increased by a piezo1/PKC/aquaporin-1 mediated pathway. Pharmacological targeting of this pathway specifically blocks the matrix rigidity enhanced VSMC volume response, leaving VSMC contractility on healthy mimicking matrices intact. Importantly, upregulation of both piezo1 and aquaporin-1 gene expression is observed in disease relevant VSMC phenotypes.