Properties and fate of human mesenchymal stem cells upon miRNA let-7f-promoted recruitment to atherosclerotic plaques

Virginia Egea*, Remco Theodorus Adrianus Megens, Donato Santovito, Sarawuth Wantha, Richard Brandl, Wolfgang Siess, Sajjad Khani, Oliver Soehnlein, Alexander Bartelt, Christian Weber, Christian Ries*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


AIMS: Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the arteries leading to the formation of atheromatous plaques. Human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) are recruited from the circulation into plaques where in response to their environment they adopt a phenotype with immunomodulatory properties. However, the mechanisms underlying hMSC function in these processes are unclear. Recently, we described that miRNA let-7f controls hMSC invasion guided by inflammatory cytokines and chemokines. Here, we investigated the role of let-7f in hMSC tropism to human atheromas and the effects of the plaque microenvironment on cell fate and release of soluble factors.

METHODS AND RESULTS: Incubation of hMSCs with LL-37, an antimicrobial peptide abundantly found in plaques, increased biosynthesis of let-7f and N-formyl peptide receptor 2 (FPR2), enabling chemotactic invasion of the cells towards LL-37, as determined by qRT-PCR, flow cytometry, and cell invasion assay analysis. In an Apoe -/- mouse model of atherosclerosis, circulating hMSCs preferentially adhered to athero-prone endothelium. This property was facilitated by elevated levels of let-7f in the hMSCs, as assayed by ex vivo artery perfusion and 2-photon laser scanning microscopy. Exposure of hMSCs to homogenized human atheromatous plaque material considerably induced the production of various cytokines, chemokines, matrix metalloproteinases, and tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases, as studied by PCR array and Western blot analysis. Moreover, exposure to human plaque extracts elicited differentiation of hMSCs into cells of the myogenic lineage, suggesting a potentially plaque-stabilizing effect.

CONCLUSIONS: Our findings indicate that let-7f promotes hMSC tropism toward atheromas through the LL-37/FPR2 axis and demonstrate that hMSCs upon contact with human plaque environment develop a potentially athero-protective signature impacting the pathophysiology of atherosclerosis.

TRANSLATIONAL PERSPECTIVE: Human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) represent a promising therapeutic approach in various pathophysiological processes associated with inflammation including atherosclerosis. The current knowledge about the mechanisms of hMSC tropism towards human atherosclerotic plaques and their beneficial effects at the site is poor. Bridging this gap is essential for clinical application of hMSCs. Our work provides insight into the contribution of microRNA let-7f in hMSC recruitment to atheroprone areas, where hMSCs display athero-protective potential by releasing immunomodulatory factors and differentiating towards plaque-stabilizing cells. Our findings highlight circulating hMSCs as a possible therapeutic strategy for the stabilization of atherosclerotic plaques.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbercvac022
Pages (from-to)155-166
Number of pages12
JournalCardiovascular Research
Issue number1
Early online date3 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 17 Mar 2023


  • Atheroma
  • Chemotaxis
  • MMPs
  • MSC
  • MicroRNA


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