Extracellular matrix stiffness modulates VEGF calcium signaling in endothelial cells: individual cell and population analysis
Vascular disease and its associated complications are the number one cause of death in the Western world. Both extracellular matrix stiffening and dysfunctional endothelial cells contribute to vascular disease. We examined endothelial cell calcium signaling in response to VEGF as a function of extracellular matrix stiffness. We developed a new analytical tool to analyze both population based and individual cell responses. Endothelial cells on soft substrates, 4 kPa, were the most responsive to VEGF, whereas cells on the 125 kPa substrates exhibited an attenuated response. Magnitude of activation, not the quantity of cells responding or the number of local maximums each cell experienced distinguished the responses. Individual cell analysis, across all treatments, identified two unique cell clusters. One cluster, containing most of the cells, exhibited minimal or slow calcium release. The remaining cell cluster had a rapid, high magnitude VEGF activation that ultimately defined the population based average calcium response. Interestingly, at low doses of VEGF, the high responding cell cluster contained smaller cells on average, suggesting that cell shape and size may be indicative of VEGF-sensitive endothelial cells. This study provides a new analytical tool to quantitatively analyze individual cell signaling response kinetics, that we have used to help uncover outcomes that are hidden within the average. The ability to selectively identify highly VEGF responsive cells within a population may lead to a better understanding of the specific phenotypic characteristics that define cell responsiveness, which could provide new insight for the development of targeted anti- and pro-angiogenic therapies.