Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Orthopaedic Institute, The First Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China; China Orthopaedic Regenerative Medicine Group (CORMed), Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Electronic address: [Email]
Annulus fibrosus (AF) tissue engineering has attracted increasing attention as a promising therapy for degenerative disc disease (DDD). However, regeneration of AF still faces many challenges due to the tremendous complexity of this tissue and lack of in-depth understanding of the structure-function relationship at cellular level within AF is highly required. In light of the fact that AF is composed of various types of cells and has gradient mechanical, topographical and biochemical features along the radial direction. In this study, we aimed to achieve directed differentiation of AF-derived stem cells (AFSCs) by mimicking the mechanical and topographical features of native AF tissue. AFSCs were cultured on four types of electrospun poly(ether carbonate urethane)urea (PECUU) scaffolds with various stiffness and fiber size (soft, small size; stiff, small size; soft, large size and stiff, large size). The results show that with constant fiber size, the expression level of the outer AF (oAF) phenotypic marker genes in AFSCs increased with the scaffold stiffness, while that of inner AF (iAF) phenotypic marker genes showed an opposite trend. When scaffold stiffness was fixed, the expression of oAF phenotypic marker genes in AFSCs increased with fiber size. While the expression of iAF phenotypic marker genes decreased. Such substrate stiffness- and topography-dependent changes of AFSCs was in accordance with the genetic and biochemical distribution of AF tissue from the inner to outer regions. Further, we found that the Yes-associated protein (YAP) was translocated to the nucleus in AFSCs cultured with increasing stiffness and fiber size of scaffolds, yet it remained mostly phosphorylated and cytosolic in cells on soft scaffolds with small fiber size. Inhibition of YAP down-regulated the expression of tendon/ligament-related genes, whereas expression of the cartilage-related genes was upregulated. The results illustrate that matrix stiffness is a potent regulator of AFSC differentiation. Moreover, we reveal that fiber size of scaffolds induced changes in cell adhesions and determined cell shape, spreading area, and extracellular matrix expression. In all, both mechanical property and topography features of scaffolds regulate AFSC differentiation, possibly through a YAP-dependent mechanotransduction mechanism. STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE: Physical cues such as mechanical properties, topographical and geometrical features were shown to profoundly impact the growth and differentiation of cultured stem cells. Previously, we have found that the differentiation of annulus fibrosus-derived stem cells (AFSCs) could be regulated by the stiffness of scaffold. In this study, we fabricated four types of poly(ether carbonate urethane)urea (PECUU) scaffolds with controlled stiffness and fiber size to explore the potential of induced differentiation of AFSCs. We found that AFSCs are able to present different gene expression patterns simply as a result of the stiffness and fiber size of scaffold material. This work has, for the first time, demonstrated that larger-sized and higher-stiffness substrates increase the amount of vinculin assembly and activate YAP signaling in pre-differentiated AFSCs. The present study affords an in-depth comprehension of materiobiology, and be helpful for explain the mechanism of YAP mechanosensing in AF in response to biophysical effects of materials.