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Department of Biomedical Engineering; Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics; Department of Mathematical Sciences; Health Research Institute


Within the vascular system, endothelial cells (ECs) are exposed to fluid shear stress (FSS), a mechanical force exerted by blood flow that is critical for regulating cellular tension and maintaining vascular homeostasis. The way ECs react to FSS varies significantly; while high, laminar FSS supports vasodilation and suppresses inflammation, low or disturbed FSS can lead to endothelial dysfunction and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Yet, the adaptation of ECs to dynamically varying FSS remains poorly understood. This study focuses on the dynamic responses of ECs to brief periods of low FSS, examining its impact on endothelial traction—a measure of cellular tension that plays a crucial role in how endothelial cells respond to mechanical stimuli. By integrating traction force microscopy (TFM) with a custom-built flow chamber, we analyzed how human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) adjust their traction in response to shifts from low to high shear stress. We discovered that initial exposure to low FSS prompts a marked increase in traction force, which continues to rise over 10 hours before slowly decreasing. In contrast, immediate exposure to high FSS causes a quick spike in traction followed by a swift reduction, revealing distinct patterns of traction behavior under different shear conditions. Importantly, the direction of traction forces and the resulting cellular alignment under these conditions indicate that the initial shear experience dictates long-term endothelial behavior. Our findings shed light on the critical influence of short-lived low-shear stress experiences in shaping endothelial function, indicating that early exposure to low FSS results in enduring changes in endothelial contractility and alignment, with significant consequences for vascular health and the development of cardiovascular diseases.

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