, Volume 425, Issue 1, pp 3-24

Heterogeneity of myofibroblast phenotypic features: an example of fibroblastic cell plasticity

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Granulation tissue fibroblasts (myofibroblasts) develop several ultrastructural and biochemical features of smooth muscle (SM) cells, including the presence of microfilament bundles and the expression of α-SM actin, the actin isoform present in SM cells and myoepithelial cells and particularly abundant in vascular SM cells. Myofibroblasts have been suggested to play a role in wound contraction and in retractile phenomena observed during fibrotic diseases. When contraction stops and the wound is fully epithelialized, myofibroblasts containing α-SM actin disappear, probably as a result of apoptosis, and the scar classically becomes less cellular and composed of typical fibroblasts with well-developed rough endoplasmic reticulum but with no more microfilaments. In contrast, α-SM actin expressing myofibroblasts persist in hypertrophic scars and in fibrotic lesions of many organs, including stroma reaction to epithelial tumours, where they are allegedly involved in retractile phenomena as well as in extracellular matrix accumulation. The mechanisms leading to the development of myofibroblastic features remain to be investigated. In vivo and in vitro investigations have shown that γ-interferon exerts an antifibrotic activity at least in part by decreasing α-SM actin expression whereas heparin increases the proportion of α-SM actin positive cells. Recently, we have observed that the subcutaneous administration of transforming growth factor-β1 to rats results in the formation of a granulation tissue in which α-SM actin expressing myofibroblasts are particularly abundant. Other cytokines and growth factors, such as platelet-derived growth factor, basic fibroblast growth factor and tumour necrosis factor-α, despite their profibrotic activity, do not induce α-SM actin in myofibroblasts. In conclusion, fibroblastic cells are relatively undifferentiated and can assume a particular phenotype according to the physiological needs and/or the microenvironmental stimuli. Further studies on fibroblast adaptation phenomena appear to be useful for the understanding of the mechanisms of development and regression of pathological processes such as wound healing and fibrocontractive diseases.