The myofibroblast markers α-SM actin and β-actin are differentially expressed in 2 and 3-D culture models of fibrotic and normal skin.

PMID 22359004


To characterize the differences between fibrotic myofibroblasts and normal fibroblasts, we studied two differentiation markers: α-smooth muscle (SM) actin, a specific marker of myofibroblast differentiation, and β-actin, which is overexpressed in the fibrotic tissue. Experiments were performed on fibroblasts isolated from normal pig skin and on subcutaneous myofibroblasts isolated from pig radiation-induced fibrosis. Three culture models were used: cells in monolayers, equivalent dermis, consisting of fibroblasts embedded into a matrix composed of type I collagen, and in vitro reconstituted skin, in which the matrix and containing life fibroblasts were overlaid with keratinocytes. Samples were studied using immunofluorescence and western-blotting. In monolayers cultures, both fibrosis and normal cells expressed α-SM actin. Furthermore, similar amounts of β-actin protein were found. In these conditions, the resulting alterations in the phenotypes of cells made comparison of cultured fibrotic and normal cells irrelevant. Under the two 3-D culture models, normal fibroblasts no longer expressed α-SM actin. They expressed β-actin at the basal level. Moreover, the fibrotic myofibroblasts in both 3-D models retained their differentiation features, expressing α-SM actin and overexpressing β-actin. We found that this normalization was mainly related to the genomic programmation acquired by the cells in the tissue. Cellular motility and microenvironment were also involved, whereas cellular proliferation was not a major factor. Consequently, both three-dimensional models allowed the study of radiation-induced fibrosis in vitro, provided good extrapolations to in vivo conditions and avoided certain of culture artefacts.