Endothelial dysfunction is widely implicated in cardiovascular pathological changes and development of vascular disease. In view of the fact that the spontaneous endothelial cell (EC) regeneration is a slow and insufficient process, it is of great interest to explore alternative cell sources capable of generating functional ECs. Vascular smooth muscle cell (SMC) composes the majority of the vascular wall and retains phenotypic plasticity in response to various stimuli. The aim of this study is to test the feasibility of the conversion of SMC into functional EC through the use of reprogramming factors. Human SMCs are first dedifferentiated for 4 days to achieve a vascular progenitor state expressing CD34, by introducing transcription factors OCT4, SOX2, KLF4 and c-MYC. These SMC-derived progenitors are then differentiated along the endothelial lineage. The SMC-converted ECs exhibit typical endothelial markers expression and endothelial functions in vitro, in vivo and in disease model. Further comprehensive analysis indicates that mesenchymal-to-epithelial transition is requisite to initiate SMCs reprogramming into vascular progenitors and that members of the Notch signalling pathway regulate further differentiation of the progenitors into endothelial lineage. Together, we provide the first evidence of the feasibility of the conversion of human SMCs towards endothelial lineage through an intermediate vascular progenitor state induced by reprogramming.
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