Bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can differentiate into a variety of cell types, including vascular smooth muscle cells (SMCs), and have tremendous potential as a cell source for cardiovascular regeneration. We postulate that specific vascular environmental factors will promote MSC differentiation into SMCs. However, the effects of the vascular mechanical environment on MSCs have not been characterized. Here we show that mechanical strain regulated the expression of SMC markers in MSCs. Cyclic equiaxial strain downregulated SM alpha-actin and SM-22alpha in MSCs on collagen- or elastin-coated membranes after 1 day, and decreased alpha-actin in stress fibers. In contrast, cyclic uniaxial strain transiently increased the expression of SM alpha-actin and SM-22alpha after 1 day, which subsequently returned to basal levels after the cells aligned in the direction perpendicular to the strain direction. In addition, uniaxial but not equiaxial strain induced a transient increase of collagen I expression. DNA microarray experiments showed that uniaxial strain increased SMC markers and regulated the expression of matrix molecules without significantly changing the expression of the differentiation markers (e.g., alkaline phosphatase and collagen II) of other cell types. Our results suggest that uniaxial strain, which better mimics the type of mechanical strain experienced by SMCs, may promote MSC differentiation into SMCs if cell orientation can be controlled. This study demonstrates the differential effects of equiaxial and uniaxial strain, advances our understanding of the mechanical regulation of stem cells, and provides a rational basis for engineering MSCs for vascular tissue engineering and regeneration.
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