1. Department of Hepatobiliary Surgery, the First Affiliated Hospital of Xi'an Jiaotong University, Xi'an 710061, China.
2. Zonglian College of Xi'an Jiaotong University, Xi'an 710061, China.
3. Department of Oncology, the First Affiliated Hospital of Xi'an Jiaotong University, Xi'an 710061, China.
Matrix stiffness is a central modulator of hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) activation and hepatic fibrogenesis. However, the long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs)-regulated transcriptional factors linking matrix stiffness to alterations in HSCs phenotype are not completely understood. In this study, we investigated the effects of matrix stiffness on HSCs activation and its potential mechanism. Through analysis the RNA-seq data with human primary HSCs cultured on 0.4 kPa and 25.6 kPa hydrogel, we identified that forkhead box protein C2 (FOXC2) and its antisense lncRNA FXOC2-AS1 as the new mechanosensing transcriptional regulators that coordinate HSCs responses to the matrix stiffness, moreover, FOXC2 and FOXC2-AS1 expression were also elevated in human fibrosis and cirrhosis tissues. The matrix stiffness was sufficient to activate HSCs into myofibroblasts, resulting in nuclear accumulation of FOXC2. Disrupting FOXC2 and FOXC2-AS1 level abrogated stiffness-induced activation of HSCs. Further mechanistic studies displayed that stiffness-upregulated lncRNA FOXC2-AS1 had no influence on transcription of FOXC2. FOXC2-AS1 exerted its biological function through maintaining the RNA stability of FOXC2, and protecting FOXC2 mRNA from degradation by RNA exosome complex. Additionally, rescue assays confirmed that reintroduction of FOXC2 in FOXC2-AS1-depleted HSCs reversed the repression of FOXC2-AS1 knockdown on stiffness-induced HSCs activation. In AAV6-treated mice fibrotic models, targeting FOXC2 in vivo lead to a reduced degree of liver fibrosis. In sum, our study uncovers a reciprocal crosstalk between matrix stiffness and FOXC2-AS1/FOXC2 axis leading to modulation of HSCs mechanoactivation and liver fibrosis, and present AAV6 shRNA as an effective strategy that targets FOXC2 leading to the resolution of liver fibrosis.
Keywords: Hepatic stellate cells, liver fibrosis, matrix stiffness, FOXC2-AS1, FOXC2, RNA exosome complex