Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Cell and Regulatory Biology

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Dianna M. Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D.

Committee Member

L. Maximilian Buja, M.D.

Committee Member

Carmen W. Dessauer, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Marta Fiorotto, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Heinrich Taegtmeyer, M.D., DPhil.


Missense mutations in smooth muscle cell (SMC) specific ACTA2 (á-actin) and MYH11 (â-myosin heavy chain) cause diffuse and diverse vascular diseases, including thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections (TAAD) and early onset coronary artery disease and stroke. The mechanism by which these mutations lead to dilatation of some arteries but occlusion of others is unknown. We hypothesized that the mutations act through two distinct mechanisms to cause varied vascular diseases: a loss of function, leading to decreased SMC contraction and aneurysms, and a gain of function, leading to increased SMC proliferation and occlusive disease. To test this hypothesis, ACTA2 mutant SMCs and myofibroblasts were assessed and found to not form á-actin filaments whereas control cells did, suggesting a dominant negative effect of ACTA2 mutations on filament formation. A loss of á-actin filaments would be predicted to cause decreased SMC contractility. Histological examination of vascular tissues from patients revealed SMC hyperplasia leading to arterial stenosis and occlusion, supporting a gain of function associated with the mutant gene. Furthermore, ACTA2 mutant SMCs and myofibroblasts proliferated more rapidly in static culture than control cells (p<0.05). We also determined that Acta2-/- mice have ascending aortic aneurysms. Histological examination revealed aortic medial SMC hyperplasia, but minimal features of medial degeneration. Acta2-/- SMCs proliferated more rapidly in culture than wildtype (p<0.05), and microarray analysis of Acta2-/- SMCs revealed increased expression of Actg2, 15 collagen genes, and multiple focal adhesion genes. Acta2-/- SMCs showed altered localization of vinculin and zyxin and increased phosphorylated focal adhesion kinase (FAK) in focal adhesions. A specific FAK inhibitor decreased Acta2-/- SMC proliferation to levels equal to wildtype SMCs (p<0.05), suggesting that FAK activation leads to the increased proliferation. We have described a unique pathology associated with ACTA2 and MYH11 mutations, as well as an aneurysm phenotype in Acta2-/- mice. Additionally, we identified a novel pathogenic pathway for vascular occlusive disease due to loss of SMC contractile filaments, alterations in focal adhesions, and activation of FAK signaling in SMCs with ACTA2 mutations.


aortic aneurysms, smooth muscle cell proliferation, ACTA2, alpha-actin, MYH11, TAAD



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