• scleroderma fibroblasts;
  • collagen metabolism;
  • three-dimensional collagen gels

Abstract In systemic scleroderma (SSc) excessive deposition of collagen leads to fibrosis of various tissues including the skin. Previous studies have demonstrated that scleroderma fibroblasts in explant monolayer cultures are heterogeneous with respect to their levels of collagen synthesis. The critical role played by the extracellular matrix (ECM) in the modulation of fibroblast metabolism prompted us to study the regulation of collagen synthesis in scleroderma fibroblasts grown within three-dimensional collagen gels, a culture system representing more physiological conditions than monolayer cultures. Normal fibroblasts grown in this system dramatically reduce their collagen synthesis as compared to monolayer cultures. Quantification of total protein and collagen synthesis showed that scleroderma fibroblasts did not demonstrate the down regulation of collagen synthesis as observed in control fibroblasts, resulting in a much higher collagen synthesis in scleroderma fibroblasts compared to controls. However, also in this system scleroderma fibroblasts were heterogeneous in their response to the collagenous lattice. Ten strains were investigated, of which 3 were indistinguishable from controls, while 7 maintained higher levels of collagen production. In addition, our data showed that the changes in collagen synthesis on the protein level were accompanied by respective up- or downregulalion on the mRNA level. These results indicate that an altered response to the surrounding ECM is an important factor in the disturbed regulation of connective tissue synthesis in scleroderma fibroblasts observed in vivo.