Heparin-induced conformational changes of fibronectin within the extracellular matrix promote hMSC osteogenic differentiation†
An increasing body of evidence suggests important roles of extracellular matrix (ECM) in regulating stem cell fate. This knowledge can be exploited in tissue engineering applications for the design of ECM scaffolds appropriate to direct stem cell differentiation. By probing the conformation of fibronectin (Fn) using fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET), we show here that heparin treatment of the fibroblast-derived ECM scaffolds resulted in more extended conformations of fibrillar Fn in ECM. Since heparin is a highly negatively charged molecule while fibronectin contains segments of positively charged modules, including FnIII13, electrostatic interactions between Fn and heparin might interfere with residual quaternary structure in relaxed fibronectin fibers thereby opening up buried sites. The conformation of modules FnIII12–14 in particular, which contain one of the heparin binding sites as well as binding sites for many growth factors, may be activated by heparin, resulting in alterations in growth factor binding to Fn. Indeed, upregulated osteogenic differentiation was observed when hMSCs were seeded on ECM scaffolds that had been treated with heparin and were subsequently chemically fixed. In contrast, either rigidifying relaxed fibers by fixation alone, or heparin treatment without fixation had no effect. We hypothesize that fibronectin's conformations within the ECM are activated by heparin such as to coordinate with other factors to upregulate hMSC osteogenic differentiation. Thus, the conformational changes of fibronectin within the ECM could serve as a ‘converter’ to tune hMSC differentiation in extracellular matrices. This knowledge could also be exploited to promote osteogenic stem cell differentiation on biomedical surfaces.