Gradually softening hydrogels for modeling hepatic stellate cell behavior during fibrosis regression†
The extracellular matrix (ECM) presents an evolving set of mechanical cues to resident cells. We developed methacrylated hyaluronic acid (MeHA) hydrogels containing both stable and hydrolytically degradable crosslinks to provide cells with a gradually softening (but not fully degradable) milieu, mimicking physiological events such as fibrosis regression. To demonstrate the utility of this cell culture system, we studied the phenotype of rat hepatic stellate cells, the major liver precursors of fibrogenic myofibroblasts, within this softening environment. Stellate cells that were mechanically primed on tissue culture plastic attained a myofibroblast phenotype, which persisted when seeded onto stiff (∼20 kPa) hydrogels. However, mechanically primed stellate cells on stiff-to-soft (∼20 to ∼3 kPa) hydrogels showed reversion of the myofibroblast phenotype over 14 days, with reductions in cell area, expression of the myofibroblast marker alpha-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA), and Yes-associated protein/Transcriptional coactivator with PDZ-binding motif (YAP/TAZ) nuclear localization when compared to stellate cells on stiff hydrogels. Cells on stiff-to-soft hydrogels did not fully revert, however. They displayed reduced expression of glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), and underwent abnormally rapid re-activation to myofibroblasts in response to re-stiffening of the hydrogels through introduction of additional crosslinks. These features are typical of stellate cells with an intermediate phenotype, reported to occur in vivo with fibrosis regression and re-injury. Together, these data suggest that mechanics play an important role in fibrosis regression and that integrating dynamic mechanical cues into model systems helps capture cell behaviors observed in vivo.