• Open Access

Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transformation alters electrical conductivity of human epicardial cells


Prof. Dr. A. C. GITTENBERGER-DE GROOT, Einthovenweg 20, P.O. Box 9600, 2300 RC Leiden, The Netherlands. Tel.: +31-715269305 Fax: +31-715268289 E-mail: acgitten@lumc.nl


The myocardium of the developing heart tube is covered by epicardium. These epicardial cells undergo a process of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transformation (EMT) and develop into epicardium-derived cells (EPDCs). The ingrowing EPDCs differentiate into several celltypes of which the cardiac fibroblasts form the main group. Disturbance of EMT of the epicardium leads to serious hypoplasia of the myocardium, abnormal coronary artery differentiation and Purkinje fibre paucity. Interestingly, the electrophysiological properties of epicardial cells and whether EMT influences electrical conductivity of epicardial cells is not yet known. We studied the electrophysiological aspects of epicardial cells before and after EMT in a dedicated in vitro model, using micro-electrode arrays to investigate electrical conduction across epicardial cells. Therefore, human adult epicardial cells were placed between two neonatal rat cardiomyocyte populations. Before EMT the epicardial cells have a cobblestone (epithelium-like) phenotype that was confirmed by staining for the cell-adhesion molecule β-catenin. After spontaneous EMT in vitro the EPDCs acquired a spindle-shaped morphology confirmed by vimentin staining. When comparing both types we observed that the electrical conduction is influenced by EMT, resulting in significantly reduced conductivity of spindle-shaped EPDCs, associated with a conduction block. Furthermore, the expression of both gap junction (connexins 40, Cx43 and Cx45) and ion channel proteins (SCN5a, CACNA1C and Kir2.1) was down-regulated after EMT. This study shows for the first time the conduction differences between epicardial cells before and after EMT. These differences may be of relevance for the role of EPDCs in cardiac development, and in EMT-related cardiac dysfunction.