Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Cell and Regulatory Biology

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Dianna Milewicz

Committee Member

Heinrich Taegtmeyer

Committee Member

Rebecca Berdeaux

Committee Member

Yi-Ping Li

Committee Member

Dorothy Lewis


Thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections (TAAD) are the primary disease affecting the thoracic ascending aorta, with an incidence rate of 10.4/100,000. Although about 20% of patients carry a mutation in a single gene that causes their disease, the remaining 80% of patients may also have genetic factors that increase their risk for developing TAAD. Many of the genes that predispose to TAAD encode proteins involved in smooth muscle cell (SMC) contraction and the disease-causing mutations are predicted to disrupt contractile function. SMCs are the predominant cell type in the ascending aortic wall. Mutations in MYH11, encoding the smooth muscle specific myosin heavy chain, are a rare cause of inherited TAAD. However, rare but recurrent non-synonymous variants in MYH11 are present in the general population but do not cause inherited TAAD. The goal of this study was to assess the potential role of these rare variants in vascular diseases. Two distinct variants were selected: the most commonly seen rare variant, MYH11 R247C, and a duplication of the chromosomal region spanning the MYH11 locus at 16p13.1. Genetic analyses indicated that both of these variants were significantly enriched in patients with TAAD compared with controls.

A knock-in mouse model of the Myh11 R247C rare variant was generated, and these mice survive and reproduce normally. They have no structural abnormalities of the aorta or signs of aortic disease, but do have decreased aortic contractility. Myh11R247C/R247C mice also have increased proliferative response to vascular injury in vivo and increased proliferation of SMCs in vitro. Myh11R247C/R247C SMCs have decreased contractile gene and protein expression and are dedifferentiated. In fibroblasts, myosin force generation is required for maturation of focal adhesions, and enhancers of RhoA activity replace enhancers of Rac1 activity as maturation occurs. Consistent with these previous findings, focal adhesions are smaller in Myh11R247C/R247C SMCs, and there is decreased RhoA activation. A RhoA activator (CN03) rescues the dedifferentiated phenotype of Myh11R247C/R247C SMCs.

Myh11R247C/R247C mice were bred with an existing murine model of aneurysm formation, the Acta2-/- mouse. Over time, mice carrying the R247C allele in conjunction with heterozygous or homozygous loss of Acta2 had significantly increased aortic diameter, and a more rapid accumulation of pathologic markers. These results suggest that the Myh11 R247C rare variant acts as a modifier gene increasing the risk for and severity of TAAD in mice.

In patients with 16p13.1 duplications, aortic MYH11 expression is increased, but there is no corresponding increase in smooth muscle myosin heavy chain protein. Using SMCs that overexpress Myh11, we identified alterations in SMC phenotype leading to excessive protein turnover. All contractile proteins, not just myosin, are affected, and the proteins are turned over by autophagic degradation. Surprisingly, these cells are also more contractile compared with wild-type SMCs.

The results described in this dissertation firmly establish that rare variants in MYH11 significantly affect the phenotype of SMCs. Further, the data suggests that these rare variants do increase the risk of TAAD via pathways involving altered SMC phenotype and contraction. Therefore, this study validates that these rare genetic variants alter vascular SMCs and provides model systems to explore the contribution of rare variants to disease.


smooth muscle cells, thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections, myosin heavy chain



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