One current concept suggests that unchecked proliferation of clonally selected precursors of endothelial cells (ECs) contribute to severe pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). We hypothesized that clonally selected ECs expressing the progenitor marker CD117 promote severe occlusive pulmonary hypertension (PH). The remodelled pulmonary arteries of PAH patients harboured CD117+ ECs. Rat lung CD117+ ECs underwent four generations of clonal expansion to enrich hyperproliferative ECs. The resulting clonally enriched ECs behaved like ECs, as measured by in vitro and in vivo angiogenesis assays. The same primitive ECs showed a limited ability for mesenchymal lineage differentiation. Endothelial differentiation and function were enhanced by blocking TGF-β signalling, promoting bone morphogenic protein (BMP) signalling. The transplantation of the EC clones caused arterio-occlusive PH in rats exposed to chronic hypoxia. These EC clones engrafted in the pulmonary arteries. Yet cessation of chronic hypoxia promoted lung cell apoptosis and resolution of vascular lesions. In conclusion, this is to the best of our knowledge, the first report that clonally enriched primitive ECs promote occlusive pulmonary arteriopathy and severe PH. These primitive EC clones further give rise to cells of endothelial and mesenchymal lineage as directed by BMP and TGF-β signaling.
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