Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biomedical Engineering and Biotechnology



First Thesis Advisor

Kristen L. Billiar, PhD


Heart Valve Diseases, Heart Valves, Tissue Engineering, Mechanical Phenomena


During heart valve remodeling, and in many disease states, valvular interstitial cells (VICs) shift to an activated myofibroblast phenotype which is characterized by enhanced synthetic and contractile activity. Pronounced alpha smooth muscle actin (αSMA)-containing stress fibers, the hallmark of activated myofibroblasts, are also observed when VICs are placed under tension due to altered mechanical loading in vivo or during in vitro culture on stiff substrates or under high mechanical loads and in the presence of transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-β1). The work presented herein describes three distinct model systems for application of controlled mechanical environment to VICs cultured in vitro. The first system uses polyacrylamide (PA) gels of defined stiffness to evaluate the response of VICs over a large range of stiffness levels and TGF-β1 concentration. The second system controls the boundary stiffness of cell-populated gels using springs of defined stiffness. The third system cyclically stretches soft or stiff two-dimensional (2D) gels while cells are cultured on the gel surface as it is deformed. Through the use of these model systems, we have found that the level of 2D stiffness required to maintain the quiescent VIC phenotype is potentially too low for a material to both act as matrix to support cell growth in the non-activated state and also to withstand the mechanical loading that occurs during the cardiac cycle. Further, we found that increasing the boundary stiffness on a three-dimensional (3D) cell populated collagen gel resulted in increased cellular contractile forces, αSMA expression, and collagen gel (material) stiffness. Finally, VIC morphology is significantly altered in response to stiffness and stretch. On soft 2D substrates, VICs cultured statically exhibit a small rounded morphology, significantly smaller than on stiff substrates. Following equibiaxial cyclic stretch, VICs spread to the extent of cells cultured on stiff substrates, but did not reorient in response to uniaxial stretch to the extent of cells stretched on stiff substrates. These studies provide critical information for characterizing how VICs respond to mechanical stimuli. Characterization of these responses is important for the development of tissue engineered heart valves and contributes to the understanding of the role of mechanical cues on valve pathology and disease onset and progression. While this work is focused on valvular interstitial cells, the culture conditions and methods for applying mechanical stimulation could be applied to numerous other adherent cell types providing information on the response to mechanical stimuli relevant for optimizing cell culture, engineered tissues or fundamental research of disease states.



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