The goal of our studies was to characterize the interrelationship between extracellular matrix organization and fibroblast proliferation in response to growth factors. We compared fibroblasts in monolayer culture with cells in contracted collagen matrices that were mechanically stressed or relaxed. In response to platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF), DNA synthesis by fibroblasts in mechanically relaxed collagen matrices was 80-90% lower than in monolayer culture and 50% lower than in mechanically stressed matrices. Fibroblasts in monolayer and contracted collagen matrix cultures contained similar levels of PDGF receptors, but differed in their autophosphorylation response. Cells in mechanically relaxed matrices showed lowest levels of autophosphorylation, 90% less than cells in monolayer culture. Experiments comparing receptor expression and capacity for PDGF-stimulated autophosphorylation showed that cells in mechanically relaxed collagen matrices never developed normal receptor autophosphorylation. Furthermore, when mechanically stressed collagen matrices were switched to mechanically relaxed conditions, capacity for receptor autophosphorylation decreased within 1-2 h and remained low. Based on immunomicroscopic observations and studies on down-regulation of receptors by PDGF binding, it appeared that most PDGF receptors in monolayer or contracted collagen matrix cultures were localized on the cell surface and accessible to PDGF binding. In related studies, we found that EGF receptors of fibroblasts in mechanically relaxed collagen matrices also showed low levels of autophosphorylation in response to EGF treatment. Based on these results, we suggest that mechanical interactions between cells and their surrounding matrix provide regulatory signals that modulate autophosphorylation of growth factor receptors and cell proliferation.

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