Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a fatal disease of unknown etiology characterized by a compositionally and mechanically altered extracellular matrix. Poor understanding of the origin of α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) expressing myofibroblasts has hindered curative therapies. Though proposed as a source of myofibroblasts in mammalian tissues, identification of microvascular pericytes (PC) as contributors to α-SMA–expressing populations in human IPF and the mechanisms driving this accumulation remain unexplored. Here, we demonstrate enhanced detection of α-SMA+ cells coexpressing the PC marker neural/glial antigen 2 in the human IPF lung. Isolated human PC cultured on decellularized IPF lung matrices adopt expression of α-SMA, demonstrating that these cells undergo phenotypic transition in response to direct contact with the extracellular matrix (ECM) of the fibrotic human lung. Using potentially novel human lung–conjugated hydrogels with tunable mechanical properties, we decoupled PC responses to matrix composition and stiffness to show that α-SMA+ PC accumulate in a mechanosensitive manner independent of matrix composition. PC activated with TGF-β1 remodel the normal lung matrix, increasing tissue stiffness to facilitate the emergence of α-SMA+ PC via MKL-1/MTRFA mechanotranduction. Nintedanib, a tyrosine-kinase inhibitor approved for IPF treatment, restores the elastic modulus of fibrotic lung matrices to reverse the α-SMA+ phenotype. This work furthers our understanding of the role that microvascular PC play in the evolution of IPF, describes the creation of an ex vivo platform that advances the study of fibrosis, and presents a potentially novel mode of action for a commonly used antifibrotic therapy that has great relevance for human disease.
Parid Sava, Anand Ramanathan, Amelia Dobronyi, Xueyan Peng, Huanxing Sun, Adrian Ledesma-Mendoza, Erica L. Herzog, Anjelica L. Gonzalez