Theses Doctoral

Immunomodulatory Matrix for Ligament Healing

Childs, Hannah Rachel

Ligament tears are more prevalent than all other knee injury pathologies, and contribute significantly to musculoskeletal joint pain and disability reported worldwide. Despite current soft tissue reconstruction techniques, the injured ligament fails to regenerate due to dysregulated cell-extracellular matrix (ECM) interactions that culminate in scar formation.

Hallmarks of scar formation, or fibrotic healing include disorganized ECM, pathological stiffness or tissue rigidity, and the accumulation and persistence of myofibroblasts. A primary driver of fibrosis, myofibroblasts are characterized by high contractility, excessive deposition of collagen type I, coupled with inflammatory and fibrotic signaling. Notably these cells are critical early on in the response to injury, by aiding in the contracture of the wound bed and depositing collagen to repair the injury site. However, myofibroblasts are not capable of fully regenerating the native ligamentous matrix, and resolution of the phenotype is necessary in order to cue surrounding cells, prevent chronic inflammation and aberrant tissue remodeling. Persistence of the myofibroblast phenotype thus leads to a ligament scar that is functionally weaker than the healthy tissue matrix, characterized by significantly different histological, biochemical, and biomechanical properties.

The consequential instability of this scar disrupts load distribution within the knee joint and increases the risk of subsequent injury, osteochondral degeneration, and ultimately, the development of post-traumatic osteoarthritis. Therefore, there is a critical need for strategies that target the inflammatory and fibrotic myofibroblast phenotypes for soft tissue healing. It follows that the overarching goal of this thesis is to engineer an immunomodulatory matrix to regulate myofibroblast activation and downstream fibrogenic signaling. To this end, models of soft tissue fibrotic repair are explored in order to test the central hypothesis that cues from the repairing ECM play an important role in regulating myofibroblast activation and persistence.

Specifically, this thesis will compare myofibroblast differentiation and signaling in three in vitro models of tissue repair: 1) 2D on tissue culture polystyrene (TCPS), and two 3D models namely 2) collagen hydrogel and 3) electrospun collagen fiber matrices. As expected, on the 2D model, a persistent myofibroblast phenotype could be generated over time with an optimized transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-β1) stimulation protocol. To create repair-relevant 3D matrix models, we engineered collagen hydrogels with controlled mechanical properties, as well as electrospun fiber platforms that isolate key matrix factors including, collagen content, stiffness, fiber diameter, and alignment. These models emulate the connective tissue repair process via recapitulating the increasing matrix stiffness and fiber assembly of the early (granulation tissue), proliferative, and remodeling stages of the repair.

Myofibroblast differentiation potential, parallel inflammatory and fibrotic cytokine secretion, as well as matrix remodeling potential were observed to be dependent on matrix model parameters. Moreover, single-cell resolution RNA sequencing revealed heterogenous myofibroblast populations within the context of response to engineered collagenous substrates. Specifically, myofibroblast accumulation was observed on hydrogel substrates that recapitulate the pathologically stiff mechanics and disorganization of fibrotic scar tissue while architectural cues of engineered fiber substrates prevented myofibroblast differentiation in a diameter and alignment-dependent manner. Moreover, nanoscale fibers elicited the greatest anti-fibrotic and anti-inflammatory properties compared to microscale fibers and stiff collagen-based hydrogels.

Throughout, this thesis also explores the contribution of NF-κB signaling to myofibroblast plasticity and persistence using engineered collagen-based platforms, highlighting the dynamic role of myofibroblasts as critical immunoregulating cells. The NF-κB signaling pathway is implicated in a broad array of fibrotic and chronic inflammatory conditions, and more recently has been associated with survival of persistent myofibroblast populations in soft-tissue fibrosis and tendon degeneration models. In this thesis, NF-κB activation was seen to be related to the persistent myofibroblast phenotype and increase over time in both 2D TCPS and 3D collagenous hydrogel matrices that mimic pathologically stiff scar tissue, while a temporally dependent activation pattern was observed in electrospun collagen fiber-based models. At the transcriptional level, NF-κB survival signaling was significantly enriched in myofibroblast populations supported by TCPS and stiff collagen-based hydrogels but downregulated on soft hydrogels and fibers with decreasing fiber diameter that prevented robust myofibroblast differentiation at single cell resolution.

Building upon these new insights regarding matrix cues that drive myofibroblast activation, we designed an immunomodulatory matrix that mediates small molecule release targeting NF-κB inhibition. The immunomodulatory matrix achieved robust amelioration of the myofibroblast phenotype as well as reduced the secretion of key inflammatory and fibrotic cytokines by these cells. Moreover, a similar anti-fibrotic response was seen for human ligament fibroblasts treated with these matrices.

Collectively, this thesis work presents a systematic evaluation of myofibroblast plasticity and persistence within the context of 2D (TCPS), 3D (collagen-based hydrogels), and finally 3D with defined microarchitectural cues (electrospun collagen-based fibers) that recapitulate the progressive stages of scar-mediated healing, and reveals NF-κB as a promising target for reducing myofibroblast persistence. Moreover, the immunomodulatory control of myofibroblast plasticity and persistence via matrix cues coupled with NF-κB inhibition informs future strategies for true ligament healing.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biomedical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Lu, Helen H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 21, 2024