Vascularised human skin equivalents as a novel in vitro model of skin fibrosis and platform for testing of antifibrotic drugs
Objectives: Fibrosis is a complex pathophysiological process involving interplay between multiple cell types. Experimental modelling of fibrosis is essential for the understanding of its pathogenesis and for testing of putative antifibrotic drugs. However, most current models employ either phylogenetically distant species or rely on human cells cultured in an artificial environment. Here we evaluated the potential of vascularised in vitro human skin equivalents as a novel model of skin fibrosis and a platform for the evaluation of antifibrotic drugs. Methods: Skin equivalents were assembled on a three-dimensional extracellular matrix by sequential seeding of endothelial cells, fibroblasts and keratinocytes. Fibrotic transformation on exposure to transforming growth factor-v (TGFv) and response to treatment with nintedanib as an established antifibrotic agent were evaluated by quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), capillary Western immunoassay, immunostaining and histology. Results: Skin equivalents perfused at a physiological pressure formed a mature, polarised epidermis, a stratified dermis and a functional vessel system. Exposure of these models to TGFv recapitulated key features of SSc skin with activation of TGFv pathways, fibroblast to myofibroblast transition, increased release of collagen and excessive deposition of extracellular matrix. Treatment with the antifibrotic agent nintedanib ameliorated this fibrotic transformation. Conclusion: Our data provide evidence that vascularised skin equivalents can replicate key features of fibrotic skin and may serve as a platform for evaluation of antifibrotic drugs in a pathophysiologically relevant human setting.