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Molecular Changes Implicate Angiogenesis and Arterial Remodeling in Systemic Sclerosis-Associated and Idiopathic Pulmonary Hypertension.

BACKGROUND: Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a common complication of systemic sclerosis (SSc) and a leading cause of mortality among patients with this disease. PH can also occur as an idiopathic condition (idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension). Investigation of transcriptomic alterations in vascular populations is critical to elucidating cellular mechanisms underlying pathobiology of SSc-associated and idiopathic PH.

METHODS: We analyzed single-cell RNA sequencing profiles of endothelial and perivascular mesenchymal populations from explanted lung tissue of patients with SSc-associated PH (n=16), idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (n=3), and healthy controls (n=15). Findings were validated by immunofluorescence staining of explanted human lung tissue.

RESULTS: Three disease-associated endothelial populations emerged. Two angiogenic endothelial cell (EC) subtypes markedly expanded in SSc-associated PH lungs: tip ECs expressing canonical tip markers PGF and APLN and phalanx ECs expressing genes associated with vascular development, endothelial barrier integrity, and Notch signaling. Gene regulatory network analysis suggested enrichment of Smad1 and PPAR-γ (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ) regulon activities in these 2 populations, respectively. Mapping of potential ligand-receptor interactions highlighted Notch, apelin-APJ, and angiopoietin-Tie signaling pathways between angiogenic ECs and perivascular cells. Transitional cells, expressing both endothelial and pericyte/smooth muscle cell markers, provided evidence for the presence of endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition. Transcriptional programs associated with arterial endothelial dysfunction implicated VEGF-A (vascular endothelial growth factor-A), TGF-β1, angiotensin, and TNFSF12/TWEAK in the injury/remodeling phenotype of PH arterial ECs.

CONCLUSIONS: These data provide high-resolution insights into the complexity and plasticity of the pulmonary endothelium in SSc-associated PH and idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension and provide direct molecular insights into soluble mediators and transcription factors driving PH vasculopathy.

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