Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) respond to a variety of differentiation signal provided by their local environments. A large portion of these signals originate from the extracellular matrix (ECM). At the same time, MSCs secrete various matrix-altering agents, including proteases, that alter ECM-encoded differentiation signals. Here we investigated the interactions between MSC and ECM produced by endothelial cells (EC-matrix), focusing not only on the differentiation signals provided by EC-matrix, but also on MSC-alteration of these signals and the resultant affects on MSC differentiation. MSCs were cultured on EC-matrix modified in one of three distinct ways. First, MSCs cultured on native EC-matrix underwent endothelial cell (EC) differentiation early during the culture period and smooth muscle cell (SMC) differentiation at later time points. Second, MSCs cultured on crosslinked EC-matrix, which is resistant to MSC modification, differentiated towards an EC lineage only. Third, MSCs cultured on EC-matrix pre-modified by MSCs underwent SMC-differentiation only. These MSC-induced matrix alterations were found to deplete the factors responsible for EC-differentiation, yet activate the SMC-differentiation factors. In conclusion, our results demonstrate that the EC-matrix contains factors that support MSC differentiation into both ECs and SMCs, and that these factors are modified by MSC-secreted agents. By analyzing the framework by which EC-matrix regulates differentiation in MSCs, we have uncovered evidence of a feedback system in which MSCs are able to alter the very matrix signals acting upon them. J. Cell. Biochem. 107: 706–713, 2009. Published 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
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