Mechanical Coupling Between Myofibroblasts and Cardiomyocytes Slows Electric Conduction in Fibrotic Cell MonolayersClinical Perspective
Background—After cardiac injury, activated cardiac myofibroblasts can influence tissue electrophysiology. Because mechanical coupling through adherens junctions provides a route for intercellular communication, we tested the hypothesis that myofibroblasts exert tonic contractile forces on the cardiomyocytes and affect electric propagation via a process of mechanoelectric feedback.
Methods and Results—The role of mechanoelectric feedback was examined in transforming growth factor-β–treated monolayers of cocultured myofibroblasts and neonatal rat ventricular cells by inhibiting myofibroblast contraction and blocking mechanosensitive channels. Untreated (control) and transforming growth factor-β–treated (fibrotic) anisotropic monolayers were optically mapped for electrophysiological comparison. Longitudinal conduction velocity, transverse conduction velocity, and normalized action potential upstroke velocity (dV/dtmax) significantly decreased in fibrotic monolayers (14.4±0.7 cm/s [mean±SEM], 4.1±0.3 cm/s [n=53], and 3.1±0.2% per ms [n=14], respectively) compared with control monolayers (27.2±0.8 cm/s, 8.5±0.4 cm/s [n=40], and 4.9±0.1% per ms [n=12], respectively). Application of the excitation-contraction uncoupler blebbistatin or the mechanosensitive channel blocker gadolinium or streptomycin dramatically increased longitudinal conduction velocity, transverse conduction velocity, and dV/dtmax in fibrotic monolayers (35.9±1.5 cm/s, 10.3±0.6 cm/s [n=17], and 4.5±0.1% per ms [n=14], respectively). Similar results were observed with connexin43–silenced cardiac myofibroblasts. Spiral-wave induction in fibrotic monolayers also decreased after the aforementioned treatments. Finally, traction force measurements of individual myofibroblasts showed a significant increase with transforming growth factor-β, a decrease with blebbistatin, and no change with mechanosensitive channel blockers.
Conclusions—These observations suggest that myofibroblast-myocyte mechanical interactions develop during cardiac injury, and that cardiac conduction may be impaired as a result of increased mechanosensitive channel activation owing to tension applied to the myocyte by the myofibroblast.
Though cardiomyocytes are the undisputed functionally contractile cells in the myocardium, fibroblasts outnumber cardiomyocytes by nearly 2:1.1 Although it is well known that cardiac fibroblasts (CFs) produce and remodel the extracellular matrix in the heart,2 their involvement in cell signaling, heterocellular coupling, and mechanoelectric feedback, and their contribution to many pathological conditions, is becoming increasingly recognized.3 After injury, CFs contribute to wound healing by proliferating and differentiating into myofibroblasts, an α-smooth muscle actin (SMA)–expressing cell adept at contraction. Myofibroblasts use contraction and extracellular matrix remodeling to replace the necrotic myocardium with mature scar tissue after infarction;4,–,6 the formed scar tissue, consisting of extracellular matrix and persistent myofibroblasts, is electrically unexcitable and ultimately creates a substrate that is vulnerable to arrhythmias.
Clinical Perspective on p 2093
A potent inducer of cardiac myofibroblast (CMF) differentiation both in vivo and in vitro is transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β).6 Expression of TGF-β remains low in the normal heart, but is markedly increased after cardiac injury.7 Sustained expression of TGF-β augments the conversion of fibroblasts to myofibroblasts and the contraction of myofibroblasts8 and ultimately contributes to myocardial fibrosis.9
Until recently, CFs were believed to act as passive electric insulators between myocytes, but new data suggest that fibroblasts play a more dynamic role in the electric activity of the heart. Fibroblast-myocyte electric coupling has been shown in vitro and in situ in regions of infarcted and healthy myocardium such as the sinoatrial node; this coupling enables fibroblasts to act as current sinks, short-range conductors, or even long-range conductors.10,–,12 Although electric coupling between myocytes and fibroblasts is suspected to be the culprit in slowing conduction velocity (CV) in fibroblast-supplemented models, a quantitative study on myocyte-fibroblast cell pairs showed that <10% of the 450 studied cell pairs expressed junctional connexin43 (Cx43).13 Furthermore, the limited amount of coupling found in situ suggests that fibroblasts may affect cardiomyocyte electrophysiology through a mechanism other than electric coupling.
Myofibroblast contraction is a crucial aspect of wound healing in injured tissues throughout the body,14 and contractile force permits cellular communication to be relayed through intercellular coupling.15 Therefore, we tested the hypothesis that mechanical coupling transmits the contractile force of myofibroblasts to myocytes, and that this interaction activates mechanosensitive channels (MSCs), which alter electrophysiological function and slow conduction. To conduct this study, we used an in vitro coculture model of neonatal rat cardiomyocytes and myofibroblasts stimulated by TGF-β, together with blockers of excitation-contraction coupling and MSCs.
An expanded Materials and Methods section is available in the online-only Data Supplement. In brief, 20-mm-diameter anisotropic monolayers of neonatal rat ventricular cells (NRVCs) were obtained by growing cells on parallel 20-μm-wide fibronectin lines formed by microcontact printing. Monolayers were treated with 5 ng/mL TGF-β for 48 to 72 hours to promote the CMF phenotype. Untreated (control) and TGF-β-treated (fibrotic) monolayers were compared by immunostaining for cardiac (troponin I, α-actinin) and fibroblast (prolyl-4-hydroxylase, SMA) markers and optically mapped with 10 μmol/L of the voltage-sensitive dye di-4-ANEPPS. Activation maps were obtained at 2-Hz pacing during constant superfusion (with bath volume exchange every 2 minutes); then, the excitation-contraction uncoupler blebbistatin or MSC blocker gadolinium or streptomycin was superfused over the monolayer to determine its impact on CV in the longitudinal (LCV) and transverse (TCV) directions, minimum cycle length before loss of 1:1 capture, incidence of spiral waves, pacing cycle length to initiate spiral waves, action potential duration, normalized upstroke velocity (dV/dtmax), and conduction heterogeneity index in control and fibrotic monolayers. In subsequent experiments, a supplemented model was created in which CFs were separately pretreated with 5 ng/mL TGF-β for at least 48 hours and then added to patterned NRVC monolayers at a concentration of 300 000 to 400 000 cells per monolayer 24 hours before electrophysiological characterization. Fibroblasts were also transduced with Cx43 shRNA lentiviral particles containing a puromycin promoter. Two days later, cells stably expressing shRNA were isolated with puromycin, and Cx43 knockdown was confirmed with Western blots. As a negative control, fibroblasts were transduced with shRNA lentiviral particles encoding a scrambled shRNA sequence. The transduced myofibroblasts were treated with 5 ng/mL TGF-β for 48 hours, and 400 000 were added to control NRVC monolayers for subsequent electrophysiological analysis. Additionally, pure monolayers of untreated fibroblasts and TGF-β–treated myofibroblasts were characterized by immunostaining for actin, SMA, pan-cadherin, and Cx43; Cx43 levels were also quantified by Western blot. Traction forces of untreated fibroblasts and TGF-β–treated myofibroblasts were quantified by elastic micropost arrays of known stiffness.16 All data are expressed as mean±SEM. Two-tail Student t tests were performed for independent data such as fibrotic and control monolayers, and Wilcoxon signed-rank tests were performed for paired data such as fibrotic monolayers before and after treatment to determine statistically significant differences (P<0.05).
Treatment With Transforming Growth Factor-β Induces a Fibrotic Neonatal Rat Ventricular Cell Model
The first goal of this project was to create an in vitro model that mimicked tissue-level aspects of cardiac fibrosis, including an excess of contractile myofibroblasts and slowed, heterogeneous conduction, compared with controls. Transforming growth factor-β was added to cocultured monolayers of cardiomyocytes and CFs. Several concentrations (2.5, 5, and 10 ng/mL) of TGF-β were tested to determine the dose-response effect on CV; 5 ng/mL was chosen for all subsequent experiments because it was the lowest dose that resulted in a significant and reproducible effect on CV. To mimic physiological conditions for all subsequent experiments, NRVCs were grown as anisotropic monolayers to evaluate their LCV and TCV. Anisotropic monolayers incubated with TGF-β are referred to as fibrotic monolayers, and untreated anisotropic monolayers are referred to as control monolayers.
Transforming growth factor-β–induced fibroblast proliferation was signified by an increased number of cells positive for prolyl-4-hydroxylase (Figure 1A and 1D). Fibroblast density was much higher in fibrotic monolayers compared with control monolayers (70±6% versus 16.4±2%, respectively; n=6; P=10−4), and fibroblast size was much larger compared with that in control monolayers (620±46 μm2 per cell versus 240±19 μm2, respectively; n=17; P=10−8). Myofibroblast conversion was evaluated by SMA stress-fiber expression; untreated fibroblasts in control monolayers expressed limited amounts of SMA, whereas TGF-β induced a dramatic upregulation of SMA-expressing myofibroblasts (Figure 1). Z-stack images revealed that myofibroblasts were directly in contact with the cardiomyocytes, most often beneath the myocytes, which allowed the cells to interact in the z direction, and in the lateral spaces between the cardiomyocytes (Figure 1D through 1F). Furthermore, purified myofibroblasts treated with TGF-β had more organized SMA stress fibers (Figure IB in the online-only Data Supplement) than control fibroblasts (Figure IA in the online-only Data Supplement). Overall, TGF-β treatment increased the fraction of fibroblasts expressing SMA stress fibers from 49% in untreated fibroblasts to 81% (n=795 for control, n=350 for TGF-β treated; P=10−4). Fibrotic monolayers (n=53) had significantly slower LCV and TCV (14.4±0.7 and 4.1±0.3 cm/s, respectively) compared with control monolayers (n=40; 27.2±0.8 and 8.5±0.4 cm/s, respectively;Figure 1G and1H). Furthermore, fibrotic monolayers (n=17) had a significantly larger heterogeneity index of propagation (1.8±0.1) than control monolayers (n=14; 1.2±0.1;Figure 1I).
Mechanical Adherens Junctions Dominate Homocellular and Heterocellular Junctions Involving Myofibroblasts
Because coupling occurs between cardiomyocytes and fibroblasts in vitro,13 evidence for electric junctions (Cx43) and mechanical junctions (pan-cadherin) was examined between the 2 cell types. Heterocellular contacts between adjoining fibroblasts and myocytes in a control monolayer had some Cx43 expression, with a considerable amount of nonjunctional Cx43, and little cadherin expression (Figure 2A). However, contacts between adjoining cardiomyocytes and myofibroblasts in a fibrotic monolayer showed that cadherin was expressed more prominently than Cx43 (Figure 2B). In pure monolayers of CFs or CMFs, CFs expressed more junctional Cx43 (Figure 2C and2E), whereas CMFs expressed more junctional cadherin (Figure 2D and2E). Both control and fibrotic monolayers were also stained for Cx45, but little expression was observed (Figure II in the online-only Data Supplement). Connexin43 Western blots of the insoluble (Figure 2F) and soluble (Figure 2G) protein fractions revealed that TGF-β–treated myofibroblasts had significantly less insoluble Cx43 than untreated fibroblasts but significantly more soluble Cx43 (n=10 and n=4, respectively; P<0.05).
Inhibition of Contractile Force Restores Conduction
In fibrotic monolayers, the increased presence of myofibroblasts capable of exerting strong contractile forces had functional consequences. To test the hypothesis that myofibroblast contraction influences the conduction properties of the cardiomyocytes, blebbistatin was added to inhibit myosin II and to suppress contraction.17 Blebbistatin (5 to 10 μmol/L for 20 to 30 minutes) significantly increased CV in fibrotic monolayers but had no significant effect on control monolayers (Figure 3).
Mechanosensitive Channel Blockers Improve Conduction in Fibrotic Monolayers
Because contractile force has a significant effect on electric conduction, mechanoelectric coupling was investigated. After 20 to 30 minutes of treatment with an MSC blocker, gadolinium (20 to 50 μmol/L) or streptomycin (50 μmol/L), LCV and TCV increased significantly in fibrotic monolayers, but not in control monolayers (Figure 3). Conduction nonuniformity was common among fibrotic monolayers, as illustrated by the skewed elliptical pattern inFigure 3A and3B, and was most likely the result of a heterogeneous density of myofibroblasts in culture, which ranged from 45% to 85%. Blebbistatin, gadolinium, and streptomycin produced more elliptical patterns of propagation and increased the uniformity of conduction in fibrotic monolayers (n=10), decreasing the heterogeneity index from 1.8±0.1 to 1.3±0.1 (P=10−3).
Inhibition of Contraction and Mechanosensitive Channels Increases Upstroke Velocity and Shortens Action Potential Duration in Fibrotic Monolayers
In addition to slowed, discontinuous conduction, fibrotic monolayers also have slowed dV/dtmax compared with control monolayers (3.1±0.2 [n=14] versus 4.9±0.1% per ms [n=12], respectively; P=10−10), which increased after application of blebbistatin, gadolinium, or streptomycin (to 4.5±0.1% per ms [n=14];Figure 4A and 4B). Calculations indicated that some but not all of the changes in dV/dtmax could be accounted for by changes in CV. The action potential duration was also prolonged in fibrotic monolayers (186±4 [n=16] versus 148±7 [n=8] milliseconds; P=10−5 in control monolayers) and shortened significantly in response to the aforementioned drug treatments (to 161±4 milliseconds [n=10];Figure 4A and 4C).
Supplemented Model Corroborates Results With Fibrotic Model
In the experiments described so far, TGF-β was added directly to a mixed population of fibroblasts and cardiomyocytes, which may affect the electrophysiology of the cardiomyocytes directly. To eliminate this potentially confounding effect, CMFs were separately treated with TGF-β and then added to untreated anisotropic NRVC monolayers (supplemented model). Untreated CFs were also added at similar numbers to untreated monolayers for comparison. The addition of CMFs or CFs decreased CV compared with control, although CMFs had a more dramatic effect than CFs, decreasing LCV from 32.6±1.2 cm/s in control monolayers (n=26) to 15.3±1.3 cm/s (n=26), compared with a decrease to only 24.5±2.0 cm/s with the addition of CFs (n=17; Figure 5A). Similar differences were observed for TCV (10.6±0.5 cm/s for control monolayers, 5.1±0.5 cm/s with the addition of CMFs, and 7.5±0.6 cm/s with the addition of CFs; Figure 5B). Finally, the addition of CMFs had a more dramatic effect on dV/dtmax and action potential duration than the addition of CFs. DV/dtmax decreased from 4.9±0.1% per ms (n=12) in control monolayers to 3.6±0.2% per ms (n=8; P=10−7) with CMFs but to only 3.9±0.3% per ms (n=8; P=10−4) with CFs, whereas action potential duration increased from 145±6 milliseconds (n=21) in control monolayers to 185±7 milliseconds (n=11; P=10−4) with CMFs but insignificantly to only 150±5 milliseconds (n=7) with CFs.
Blebbistatin, gadolinium, and streptomycin were again tested on the fibroblast-supplemented monolayers. Isochrone maps (shown for blebbistatin; Figure 5C) and line plots (Figure 5D) show that all treatments significantly increased LCV and TCV in CMF-supplemented monolayers and, to a lesser extent, in CF-supplemented monolayers (Figure 5E). Furthermore, all 3 drugs significantly shortened the action potential duration (from 187±7 to 166±6 milliseconds [n=12]; P=10−3) and increased dV/dtmax (from 3.6±0.2 to 4.3±0.1% per ms [n=8]; P=10−3) in CMF-supplemented monolayers but not in CF-supplemented monolayers (only changing from 150±5 to 155±6 milliseconds [n=7] and from 3.9±0.3 to 4.1±0.1% per ms [n=8], respectively). Taken together, our results support the notion that the addition of TGF-β increases the contractile activity of CMFs, subsequently producing a greater impact on the electrophysiological function of NRVC monolayers.
Connexin43 shRNA Myofibroblasts Retain Slowing Effects on Neonatal Rat Ventricular Cell Monolayers
To ensure a minimal degree of electric coupling between myofibroblasts and myocytes, Cx43 was knocked down in myofibroblasts before supplementation, as confirmed with Western blots (Figure 6C). Stress fibers were unaffected (Figure 6E). The LCV of NRVC monolayers (26.9±1.7 cm/s; n=10) decreased to similar levels with the addition of scrambled shRNA CMFs (10.5±1.3 cm/s [n=11]; P=10−7) or Cx43 shRNA CMFs (11.1±1.3 cm/s [n=8]; P=10−6). Decreases in TCV were also similar (6.1±0.4 cm/s for control monolayers, 3.4±0.3 cm/s [P=10−6] with the addition of scrambled shRNA CMFs, and 3.0±0.3 cm/s [P=10−5] with the addition of Cx43 shRNA CMFs).
Blebbistatin, gadolinium, and streptomycin were again tested on these monolayers. Figure 6 shows that all treatments significantly and similarly increased LCV and TCV in both scrambled and Cx43 shRNA–transduced CMF-supplemented monolayers. Furthermore, compared with control, Cx43 shRNA CMF-supplemented monolayers had significantly lower dV/dtmax of propagating action potentials at 2-Hz pacing, which was significantly increased after incubation with the aforementioned treatments (increasing from 2.6±0.1 to 3.5±0.2% per ms [n=8]; P=0.01). Taken together, these results strengthen our findings that the contractile activity of CMFs is responsible for the electrophysiological consequences imparted by CMFs on the NRVC monolayers.
Drug Effects on the Stress Fiber Organization and Contractile Force of Myofibroblasts
Traction forces of individual CFs were analyzed with elastic micropost arrays (Figure 7A and 7B). Incubation with 5 ng/mL TGF-β for 48 to 72 hours increased cell contraction by 50%, as measured by the total strain energy per cell imparted to the posts by the traction forces (E=183±12 fJ [n=100]), although untreated fibroblasts also had substantial contraction (E=120±8 fJ [n=93]; P=10−5). Furthermore, for any given strain energy, TGF-β treatment increased the fraction of cells exerting at least that energy (Figure 7C). Myofibroblasts were also treated with blebbistatin, gadolinium, or streptomycin for 20 to 30 minutes and either immunostained for SMA to determine whether the drugs altered stress fiber organization or analyzed for traction force changes with micropost arrays. Some of the CMFs incubated with blebbistatin experienced actin destabilization (Figure IC in the online-only Data Supplement), likely through the inhibition of myosin II–actin interactions, and total strain energy decreased by 74% with blebbistatin (Figure 7E). On the other hand, CMFs treated with gadolinium had no apparent change in the SMA stress fiber organization (Figure ID in the online-only Data Supplement); similarly, no change was observed with streptomycin (not shown). Total strain energy did not significantly change with MSC blockers (Figure 7D). Finally, Cx43 shRNA–transduced CMFs showed no decrease in contraction compared with control CMFs (E=251±25 fJ [n=17] and 228±23 fJ [n=20], respectively; P=0.5; Figure 7F), confirming the presence of contractile myofibroblasts in the supplemented Cx43 knockout model.
Contraction and Mechanosensitive Channel Inhibitors Reduce Spiral-Wave Vulnerability in Fibrotic Monolayers
Because CV increased in fibrotic monolayers treated with blebbistatin, gadolinium, or streptomycin, we investigated the drug effects on susceptibility to rapid pacing–induced spiral waves (Figure 8A and 8B). The occurrence of spiral waves decreased in fibrotic monolayers after treatment (Figure 8C), despite the fact that it was possible to stimulate the treated monolayers at significantly faster capture rates (minimum cycle length before loss of 1:1 capture decreased by 90 milliseconds; n=12; Figure 8D), which normally facilitates wave breaks. The pacing cycle length required to induce spiral waves in the treated monolayers also shortened significantly by 80 milliseconds (n=13; Figure 8C). Therefore, our results suggest that contraction or MSC inhibitors reduce susceptibility to arrhythmias in fibrotic NRVC monolayers.
After an acute injury to the heart, as in myocardial infarction, fibroblasts participate in the wound healing process. Because of the limited capability of cardiomyocytes to regenerate, wound healing concludes with loss of ventricular muscle and formation of a stable scar, ultimately leading to a fibrotic, arrhythmogenic substrate.9 The myofibroblast repairs the injured region through the formation of granulation tissue,5,18 using contraction to reduce the total scar volume.19 It is well known that mechanoelectric coupling among cardiac cells, the process in which mechanical perturbations alter electric activity, exists in the intact heart20 and in cardiac cell cultures.21 Cardiomyocytes also possess MSCs, which have an open probability that increases with stretch22 and a mechanical sensitivity that increases after myocardial infarction.23 Thus, we tested the hypothesis that increased vulnerability to arrhythmias after cardiac injury could be related to a tonic tugging force that myofibroblasts exert on the cardiomyocyte membrane through mechanical coupling and lead to conduction slowing and block through the action of MSCs.24
We used TGF-β in our fibrotic models to induce fibroblast differentiation to contractile myofibroblasts. Although fibroblasts in culture transition to proto-myofibroblasts that express some stress fibers,18 incubation with TGF-β increases complete differentiation to myofibroblasts,25 expression of SMA,5 and generation of strong contractile forces (Figure 7). Our results demonstrate that cocultures of cardiomyocytes and untreated fibroblasts have a significant reduction in CV compared with NRVC control monolayers, similar to previous reports in the literature for cocultures of cardiomyocytes with non–TGF-β–treated fibroblasts.11 However, our experiments involving the supplementation of NRVC monolayers with TGF-β–treated myofibroblasts suggest that conduction slowing is exacerbated well beyond that obtained with supplementation with untreated fibroblasts (Figure 5A and5B), without a concordant increase in Cx43 expression (Figure 2F and 2G).
The recent perspective that fibroblasts may have an active electric influence on cardiac electrophysiology has been bolstered by discoveries of in vitro and in situ gap junctional coupling between CFs and cardiomyocytes3,26 and by characterization of multiple fibroblast ion channels,27 including KATP channels,28 Na+-Ca2+ exchanger,19 and MSCs.29 Numerous studies have focused on the potential electrophysiological consequences of electric coupling between fibroblasts and cardiomyocytes,30,–,32 and the general dogma of these studies is that, through electric coupling, fibroblasts actively depolarize resting cardiomyocytes because of their more positive resting membrane potential.
However, in our studies, immunolabeling for Cx43 and pan-cadherin of fibroblast-only cultures suggests a different mechanism by which myofibroblasts and cardiomyocytes can interact. We found that SMA-negative fibroblasts expressed abundant Cx43, whereas SMA-positive myofibroblasts had little Cx43 expression but enhanced pan-cadherin expression (Figure 2C through 2E), suggesting that myofibroblasts form strong mechanical rather than electrical junctions. However, TGF-β–treated myofibroblasts still had a significant amount of soluble Cx43 (Figure 2G), indicating that Cx43 is still present in the cytoplasm. This finding is consistent with recent evidence demonstrating that Cx43 is necessary for fibroblast differentiation into myofibroblasts.33 In heterocellular contacts between adjoining cardiomyocytes and myofibroblasts, we also found that adherens junction expression dominated over gap junction expression (Figure 2B). Our key finding that myofibroblast-induced slowing of conduction could be restored with contraction or MSC blockers (Figures 3 and 5) was unchanged with Cx43 silencing in the myofibroblasts (Figure 6). Furthermore, given that the changes in myofibroblast contractile force (Figure 7) paralleled the changes in CV brought about by both TGF-β and blebbistatin (Figures 1, 3, and 5), and considering the plethora of work demonstrating the significance of myofibroblast contraction in other tissues,5 we believe that mechanical coupling between myofibroblasts and cardiomyocytes is an important factor contributing to conduction slowing in cocultures of these 2 cell types. We suggest that this form of mechanical signaling can activate MSCs, which depolarize the cardiomyocyte membrane,34 thereby inactivating the Na+ channels that drive conduction. Furthermore, heterogeneity in the distribution of myofibroblasts can accentuate spatial gradients in conduction and action potential duration, leading to increased propensity to reentrant arrhythmias, which again may be suppressed by MSC or contraction blockers (Figure 8). As a caveat, we cannot rule out the possibility of paracrine signaling between myofibroblasts and cardiomyocytes as a means of modulating cardiac conduction,34a although the continuous exchange of solution in our experimental setup suggests that paracrine factors do not play a dominant role.
We believe that our in vitro model, consisting of longitudinally patterned myocytes and adjacent contractile SMA myofibroblasts, retains several key aspects of the environment in a healing infarct. Previous studies have shown that both SMA-positive myofibroblasts35 and TGF-β are markedly expressed36 during infarction and can remain elevated for several months to years in the infarct border zone.37,38 Furthermore, although numerous studies have shown that Cx43 is downregulated and redistributed after infarction,39,40 cadherin expression levels and distribution remain unaffected or are downregulated to a lesser degree compared with Cx43.40 On the other hand, our results are specific to in vitro conditions, and it remains to be seen whether they extrapolate to the in vivo heart in light of known differences between the 2 environments. First, our cells are maintained under culture conditions (culture media, 2-dimensional rigid substrate, lack of hemodynamic loading), which can affect cell shape, protein expression, and cell function.21 Second, the spatial distribution of heterocellular gap junctions and adherens junctions in cell monolayers may differ significantly from that found in vivo. Although myofibroblast-myocyte junctions have not been characterized in the intact heart, in normal myocardium, myocyte-myocyte junctions occur primarily within intercalated disks, whereas in cell culture they are distributed around the cell perimeter,21 although in infarcted myocardium the distribution also tends to occur around the cell perimeter.40 If future studies confirm our findings in infarcted regions of the heart in vivo, it is plausible that MSC blockers or fibroblast-specific contraction inhibitors may provide a means to reduce the incidence of arrhythmias.
Our data demonstrate that impaired conduction in an in vitro fibrotic model is mechanically dependent. Furthermore, our findings support the current view that myofibroblasts are capable of actively decreasing conduction among cardiomyocyte, and suggest that mechanical coupling between myofibroblasts and cardiomyocytes can play a more prominent role in this regard than electric coupling. Finally, we propose a novel mechanism in which myofibroblasts may impair cardiomyocyte electrophysiological function through the application of contractile force to the cardiomyocyte membrane and activation of MSCs.
Sources of Funding
Funding for this work was provided by National Institutes of Health grant R01-HL066239 (L.T.), a grant-in-aid from the Mid-Atlantic Affiliate of the American Heart Association (L.T.), and National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (S.A.T., C.R.C.).
We wish to thank Seth Weinberg and Michael Shamblott for helpful discussions and Christopher S. Chen for providing expertise and materials for fabricating micropost arrays.
The online-only Data Supplement is available with this article at http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/CIRCULATIONAHA.110.015057/DC1.
- Received December 16, 2010.
- Accepted March 8, 2011.
- © 2011 American Heart Association, Inc.
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Myocardial infarction engages a fibrotic process in which myofibroblasts secrete extracellular matrix proteins to replace the injured tissue. The contractile properties of myofibroblasts help to ensure a smaller and stronger scar area and to preserve mechanical function. However, in the infarct border zone, arrhythmias are prone to initiate owing to slowed and heterogeneous conduction. Although fibrosis has classically been considered arrhythmogenic because of the creation of an inexcitable region, together with zigzag conduction in the border zone, we tested the hypothesis that myofibroblasts can actively influence electrophysiological function through mechanoelectric coupling to the cardiomyocytes. In this study, impaired electric conduction in cocultured monolayers of myofibroblasts and cardiomyocytes can be dramatically improved by applying an excitation-contraction inhibitor or mechanosensitive channel blockers. Our findings advocate a novel mechanism whereby cardiac myofibroblasts exert tension on the myocyte membrane, which leads to slowed and heterogeneous electric conduction through the action of mechanosensitive ion channels. Provided that these in vitro results are corroborated in the intact heart, inhibition of this form of mechanoelectric interaction in the heart may be a way to decrease susceptibility to arrhythmias.