Substrate mechanical properties bias MSC paracrine activity and therapeutic potential

Aeolus Vilar, Margeaux Hodgson-Garms, Gina D. Kusuma, Ilze Donderwinkel, James Carthew, Jean L. Tan, Rebecca Lim, Jessica E. Frith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) have significant therapeutic potential due to their ability to differentiate into musculoskeletal lineages suitable for tissue-engineering, as well as the immunomodulatory and pro-regenerative effects of the paracrine factors that these cells secrete. Cues from the extracellular environment, including physical stimuli such as substrate stiffness, are strong drivers of MSC differentiation, but their effects upon MSC paracrine activity are not well understood. This study, therefore sought to determine the impact of substrate stiffness on the paracrine activity of MSCs, analysing both effects on MSC fate and their effect on T-cell and macrophage activity and angiogenesis. The data show that conditioned medium (CM) from MSCs cultured on 0.2 kPa (soft) and 100 kPa (stiff) polyacrylamide hydrogels have differing effects on MSC proliferation and differentiation, with stiff CM promoting proliferation whilst soft CM promoted differentiation. There were also differences in the effects upon macrophage phagocytosis and angiogenesis, with the most beneficial effects from soft CM. Analysis of the media composition identified differences in the levels of proteins including IL-6, OPG, and TIMP-2. Using recombinant proteins and blocking antibodies, we confirmed a role for OPG in modulating MSC proliferation with a complex combination of factors involved in the regulation of MSC differentiation. Together the data confirm that the physical microenvironment has an important influence on the MSC secretome and that this can alter the differentiation and regenerative potential of the cells. These findings can be used to tailor the culture environment for manufacturing potent MSCs for specific clinical applications or to inform the design of biomaterials that enable the retention of MSC activity after delivery into the body. Statement of significance: • MSCs cultured on 100 kPa matrices produce a secretome that boosts MSC proliferation • MSCs cultured on 0.2 kPa matrices produce a secretome that promotes MSC osteogenesis and adipogenesis, as well as angiogenesis and macrophage phagocytosis • IL-6 secretion is elevated in MSCs on 0.2

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)144-158
Number of pages15
JournalActa Biomaterialia
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2023


  • Differentiation
  • Immunomodulatory
  • Mesenchymal stromal cell
  • Paracrine signalling
  • Secretome
  • Substrate stiffness

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