Faculty Advisor

Dr. Kristen Billiar

Faculty Advisor

Dr. Marsha Rolle

Faculty Advisor

Dr. Qi Wen

Faculty Advisor

Dr. Nima Rahbar

Faculty Advisor

Dr. Diane Hoffman-Kim


Calcific aortic valvular disease (CAVD) is the most common valvular pathology in the developed world. CAVD results in calcifications forming on the aortic valve leaflets, inhibiting proper closure and causing complications of stenosis and regurgitation. Although, the mechanisms behind the disease initiation are unknown, it is believed to be a cell-mediated phenomenon, and not the result of passive degradation of the valve as once believed due to the increased prevalence with age. Currently, there are no pharmaceutical options for the prevention or reversal of calcifications, the only treatment option is complete valve replacement, an imperfect solution. Hindering the development of potential therapeutics is that currently there are no adequate animal models which replicate the calcification and cell death seen in disease explanted valves. An in vitro model has been develop where valvular interstitial cells (VICs), the main cell type of the valve, are seeded at high density into tissue culture polystyrene dishes and cultured with TGF-β1. This results in VICs activating to the myofibroblast phenotype and forming cell aggregates. Due to currently unknown mechanisms, apoptosis occurs within the center of the aggregates and calcification ensues. Although simplistic, this model has been used to show that rate and frequency of aggregation is affected by cellular tension; conditions of high tension increase aggregation response, while conditions of low tension prevent aggregation and calcification from occurring. It is important to note; however, that despite its wide usage, the current model is limited as the aggregation and subsequent calcification are random occurrences and are not consistent across literature where same conditions for control samples are used. The motivation of the presented work is two-fold. First, high intracellular tension has been suggested as one of the mechanisms leading to disease in the valve. Despite the clear and important role of cell tension, VIC tension has never before been measured in a dynamic environment. The ways in which dynamic stimulation affects individual VIC tension is not known. In aim one, a method is developed to allow for long-term cyclic stretch of VICs with measurement of cell traction force. It was found that cyclic stretch decreased cell tension in cells with high prestress and increased cell tension for conditions of low prestress. Combined, these findings indicate a homeostatic cellular tension which is dependent upon the mechanical environment. In the second aim, a novel method for creating VIC aggregates is validated. Micro-contact printing, essentially “stampingâ€� of a protein in a defined pattern, is used to create circular aggregates on polyacrylamide gels. This method allows for the separation of the aggregation from the subsequent calcification, an improvement over the current in vitro model. The method is then used to explore the role of the distribution of tension in the initiation of disease


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Biomedical Engineering

Project Type


Date Accepted



Sigma Xi Graduate Research Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation (2016)




traction force microscopy, aortic valvular interstial cells, calcification, apoptosis, calcific aortic valve disease