Blood vessels are subject to tensile stress and associated strain which may influence the structure and organization of smooth muscle cells (SMCs) during physiological development and pathological remodeling. This study focused on the influence of the major tensile strain on the SMC orientation in the blood vessel wall. Several blood vessels, including the aorta, the mesenteric artery and vein, and the jugular vein of the rat were used to observe the normal distribution of tensile strains and SMC orientation; and a vein graft model was used to observe the influence of altered strain direction on the SMC orientation. The circumferential and longitudinal strains in these blood vessels were measured by using a biomechanical technique, and the SMC orientation was examined by fluorescent microscopy at times of 10, 20, and 30 days. Results showed that the SMCs were mainly oriented in the circumferential direction of straight blood vessels with an average angle of ~85 deg between the SMC axis and the vessel axis in all observed cases. The SMC orientation coincided with the principal direction of the circumferential strain, a major tensile strain, in the blood vessel wall. In vein grafts, the major tensile strain direction changed from the circumferential to the longitudinal direction at observation times of 10, 20, and 30 days after graft surgery. This change was associated with a decrease in the angle between the axis of newly proliferated SMCs and that of the vessel at all observation times (43 ± 11 deg, 42 ± 10 deg, and 41 ± 10 deg for days 10, 20, and 30, respectively), indicating a shift of the SMC orientation from the circumferential toward the longitudinal direction. These results suggested that the major tensile strain might play a role in the regulation of SMC orientation during the development of normal blood vessels as well as during remodeling of vein grafts.

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