Large Artery Stiffness: Genes and Pathways
Aortic stiffness underlies systolic hypertension, promotes heart failure and is associated with in- creased cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. It is regarded as a primary driver of left ventricular hypertrophy and aortic aneurysms and is linked to the pathogenesis of cognitive impairment, stroke and renal failure. Like most cardiovascular traits, aortic stiffness is a complex trait and is moderately heritable, yet the precise molecular mechanisms that underpin the stiffening process remain poorly defined. This study aimed to employ multiple approaches to further identify the genetic basis of aortic stiffness in a large repository of human donor aortas that had undergone ex vivo pulse wave velocity (PWV) phenotyping. The first part of this work sought to investigate the molecular basis of Loeys-Dietz type 4 syn- drome in a pedigree with multiple cases of aortic aneurysms and dissections. A missense variant p.(Arg320Cys) was identified in a highly evolutionary conserved region of TGFB2. There was strik- ing upregulation of TGFB1, TGFB2 and pSMAD2/3 on imunocytochemical straining and western blotting of the aortic tissue from the index case confirming the functional importance of the variant. This case highlighted the striking paradox of predicted loss-of-function mutations in TGFB2 causing enhanced TGFβ signalling in this emerging familial aortopathy and underscored the significance of TGFβ signalling in aortic extracellular matrix biology. The second part of this work attempted to characterise the biological basis for the susceptibility lo- cus identified in the most recent genome wide analysis of carotid-femoral PWV. While the locus lies within the 14q32.2 gene desert, it contains regulatory elements, with the transcriptional regulator B-cell CLL/lymphoma 11B (BCL11B) and non-coding RNA DB129663 representing potential targets for these enhancers. The association of five lead SNPs from the genome-wide association studies (GWAS) meta-analysis was examined for ex vivo aortic stiffness and BCL11B and DB129663 aortic mRNA expression. Three of the five SNPs associated significantly with PWV and showed allele- specific differences in BCL11B mRNA. The risk alleles associated with lower BCL11B suggesting a protective role for BCL11B. Despite the strong association, BCL11B protein was not detected in the human aorta; however, qPCR for CD markers showed that BCL11B transcript correlated strongly with markers for activated lymphocytes. In contrast, DB129663 transcripts were detected in 55% of the samples, and of the five SNPs only one showed allele-specific differences in aortic DB129663 transcripts. No significant differences were observed in PWV between samples expressing or lack- ing DB129663, and therefore the implication of this lncRNA in aortic stiffness remains elusive. The BCL11B transcript detected in the human aorta may reflect lymphocyte infiltration, suggesting that immune mechanisms contribute to the observed association with PWV. For the final part of this work genetic associations with aortic stiffness were explored in a candidate gene-based study utilising tagging SNPs to effectively capture the genetic information from linkage disequilibrium blocks. Association analyses were performed in young, healthy ENIGMA study par- ticipants selected for high and low PWV values then validated in the remaining ENIGMA cohorts. The association of four lead SNPs was then examined for ex vivo aortic stiffness in human donor aortas. The tissue expression of these SNPs and their encoded proteins was also explored. Neither the aggrecan nor the fibulin-1 SNPs showed significant associations with ex vivo PWV in the donor aortas. The exonic aggrecan tagSNP rs2882676 displayed differential transcript abundance between homozygous allele carriers but this did not translate at the protein level. Both aggrecan and fibulin-1 were found in the aortic wall, but with marked differences in the distribution and glycosylation of aggrecan, reflecting loss of chondroitin-sulphate binding domains. These differences were age-dependent but the striking finding was the acceleration of this process in stiff versus elastic young aortas. These findings suggest that aggrecan and fibulin-1 have critical roles in determining the biomechanics of the aorta and their modification with age could underpin age-related aortic stiffening.