eCM (Eur Cell Mater / e Cells & Materials) Not-for-Profit Open Access
Created by Scientists, for Scientists
 ISSN:1473-2262         NLM:100973416 (link)         DOI:10.22203/eCM

2021   Volume No 41 – pages 648-667

Title: Pro-fibrotic phenotype of bone marrow stromal cells in Modic type 1 changes

Authors: I Heggli, S Epprecht, A Juengel, R Schuepbach, N Farshad-Amacker, C German, T Mengis, N Herger, L Straumann, S Baumgartner, M Betz, JM Spirig, F Wanivenhaus, N Ulrich, D Bellut, F Brunner, M Farshad, O Distler, S Dudli

Address: Centre of Experimental Rheumatology, Balgrist Campus AG, Lengghalde 5, 8008 Zurich, Switzerland

E-mail: irina.heggli at

Abstract: Modic type 1 changes (MC1) are painful vertebral bone marrow lesions frequently found in patients suffering from chronic low-back pain. Marrow fibrosis is a hallmark of MC1. Bone marrow stromal cells (BMSCs) are key players in other fibrotic bone marrow pathologies, yet their role in MC1 is unknown. The present study aimed to characterise MC1 BMSCs and hypothesised a pro-fibrotic role of BMSCs in MC1.
BMSCs were isolated from patients undergoing lumbar spinal fusion from MC1 and adjacent control vertebrae. Frequency of colony-forming unit fibroblast (CFU-F), expression of stem cell surface markers, differentiation capacity, transcriptome, matrix adhesion, cell contractility as well as expression of pro-collagen type I alpha 1, α-smooth muscle actin, integrins and focal adhesion kinase (FAK) were compared.
More CFU-F and increased expression of C-X-C-motif-chemokine 12 were found in MC1 BMSCs, possibly indicating overrepresentation of a perisinusoidal BMSC population.
RNA sequencing analysis showed enrichment in extracellular matrix proteins and fibrosis-related signalling genes. Increases in pro-collagen type I alpha 1 expression, cell adhesion, cell contractility and phosphorylation of FAK provided further evidence for their pro-fibrotic phenotype. Moreover, a leptin receptor high expressing (LEPRhigh) BMSC population was identified that differentiated under transforming growth factor beta 1 stimulation into myofibroblasts in MC1 but not in control BMSCs.
In conclusion, pro-fibrotic changes in MC1 BMSCs and a LEPRhigh MC1 BMSC subpopulation susceptible to myofibroblast differentiation were found. Fibrosis is a hallmark of MC1 and a potential therapeutic target. A causal link between the pro-fibrotic phenotype and clinical characteristics needs to be demonstrated.

Key Words: Modic change, fibrosis, bone marrow stromal cells, mesenchymal stem cell, extracellular matrix, cell differentiation, cell contractility, cell adhesion, focal adhesion kinase, pro-fibrotic phenotype.

Publication date: June 8th 2021

Article download: Pages 648-667 (PDF file)

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