The regulation of cellular function by the mechanical environment, termed mechanobiology, is a rapidly-emerging field of scientific research. This field has been predominantly enabled and driven by the development of new technologies and experimental models that have allowed cellular function to be studied in a more realistic environment than the very stiff and flat plastic of traditional cell culture models. Seminal work involved the creation of a polyacrylamide hydrogel model in which substrates with a tuneable stiffness are bonded to glass coverslips through silanes, and are coated with extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins through a heterobifunctional crosslinker. With this model it has been shown that cells are capable of sensing and probing the mechanical environment, which strongly regulates numerous basal cell functions including migration, adhesion and proliferation. More importantly, substrate stiffness alone can drive the differentiation of mesenchymal stem cells into different lineages, and is capable of over-riding traditional signalling pathways.
There are numerous mechanisms by which mechanical cues may profoundly alter traditional cell signalling paradigms and alter cellular function. These mechanisms are largely mediated through sites of mechanical coupling to the ECM (i.e. integrins and focal adhesions) and act through the cytoskeleton to alter receptor membrane targeting and clustering (e.g. at caveolae), translocation of activated transcription factors, and modify the arrangement of DNA within the nucleus by rapidly altering nuclear mechanics. However, the broader physiological consequences of mechanobiology regulation in health and disease are largely unknown.
The lung represents a physiological system in which these mechanobiology principles may play an important role; it contains a variety of mechanical microenvironments that range from very stiff cartilaginous trachea to highly compliant terminal bronchioles, plus important mechanical interdependencies between multiple systems (airways and vasculature) and cell types (epithelium/endothelium and muscle/fibroblast cells). Critically, a diverse spectrum of chronic lung diseases are characterised by alterations in structural and mechanical properties of the organ, including but not limited to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), and persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN).
The overreaching aim of the West laboratory is to improve our understanding of how mechanobiology principles and structural/mechanical changes contribute the pathogenesis of lung disease. This aim presently incorporates three specific research direction:
Noble PB, Pascoe CD, Lan B, Ito S, Kistemaker LEM, Tatler AL, Pera T, Brook BS, Gosens R, West AR. Airway smooth muscle in asthma: linking contraction and mechanotransduction to disease pathogenesis and remodelling. Pulm Pharmacol Ther (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pupt.2014.07.005
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