Substrate stiffness heterogeneities disrupt endothelial barrier integrity in a micropillar model of heterogeneous vascular stiffening
Intimal stiffening has been linked with increased vascular permeability and leukocyte transmigration, hallmarks of atherosclerosis. However, recent evidence indicates age-related intimal stiffening is not uniform but rather characterized by increased point-to-point heterogeneity in subendothelial matrix stiffness, the impact of which is much less understood. To investigate the impact of spatially heterogeneous matrix rigidity on endothelial monolayer integrity, we develop a micropillar model to introduce closely-spaced, step-changes in substrate rigidity and compare endothelial monolayer phenotype to rigidity-matched, uniformly stiff and compliant substrates. We found equivalent disruption of adherens junctions within monolayers on step-rigidity and uniformly stiff substrates relative to uniformly compliant substrates. Similarly, monolayers cultured on step-rigidity substrates exhibited equivalent percentages of leukocyte transmigration to monolayers on rigidity-matched, uniformly stiff substrates. Adherens junction tension and focal adhesion density, but not size, increased within monolayers on step-rigidity and uniformly stiff substrates compared to more compliant substrates suggesting that elevated tension is disrupting adherens junction integrity. Leukocyte transmigration frequency and time, focal adhesion size, and focal adhesion density did not differ between stiff and compliant sub-regions of step-rigidity substrates. Overall, our results suggest that endothelial monolayers exposed to mechanically heterogeneous substrates adopt the phenotype associated with the stiffer matrix, indicating that spatial heterogeneities in intimal stiffness observed with age could disrupt endothelial barrier integrity and contribute to atherogenesis.