Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2019

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 09/04/2020

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Pharmaceutical Sciences and Experimental Therapeutics

First Advisor

Stevens, Lewis L

First Committee Member

Dale E Wurster

Second Committee Member

Salem, Aliasger

Third Committee Member

Doorn, Jonathan

Fourth Committee Member

Anderson, Ethan


Mechanobiology is an emerging field that aims to understand how physical forces regulate cell function, morphology, and development. Cells interpret forces, such as the deformation of the membrane to encapsulate a particle, or the rigidity of the extracellular matrix (ECM), and make decisions about cell adhesion, motility, and differentiation. These cell-ECM interactions are important to maintaining homeostasis, and the disruption of this interface has pathological consequences. Common diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and atherosclerosis each arise, in part, from an abnormality in the mechanotransduction pathway. Hence, understanding the contribution of this pathway and the role of the ECM in cell function, proves to be a useful tool in improving drug targeting and understanding disease progression.

While size, shape and surface chemistry of nanoparticle uptake has been extensively studied, varying the particle mechanics can also be a useful design strategy to manipulate particles and improve uptake and targeting. Using model polystyrene-co-N-isopropylacrylamide (pS-co-NIPAM) particles, with varying elastic moduli, it was observed that as the particles became stiffer, there was a subsequent decrease in bound/internalized particles for phagocytic RAW264.7 macrophage and non-phagocytic HepG2 hepatoma carcinoma cells, showing that both of these cell types are sensitive to particle mechanics, even in a higher stiffness regime (MPa).

ECM mechanics have recently been implicated in tissue stiffness changes that precede and drive disease development. Recent research has started looking into these effects in the progression of neurodegenerative diseases. This research found that the elasticity of the brain becomes softer with aging, and even softer in patients with AD. Analogous to the pS-co-NIPAM studies, this tissue softening could have implications on amyloid-beta endocytosis as well as neuron dystrophy in response to the peptide. Understanding the role of the ECM in the progression of AD in vitro could provide a better approach to determine an in vivo mechanism behind Alzheimer’s disease pathology.

In order to mimic a softer ECM substrate, SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma and human primary neurons were plated on 2-D polyacrylamide and 3-D collagen gels with varying stiffness ranging from 0.15-25kPa. Both cell types grown using these substrates show a sensitivity to their ECM environment, and display an increase in cell spreading and the number of F-actin stress fibers with an increase in substrate rigidity. Moreover, the extent of Aβ internalization and aggregate production increased with ECM stiffness for SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma. Intracellular Aβ processing remains a central question to understanding the early-stage events in AD pathogenesis. As the ECM can modify Aβ endocytosis and aggregation, the ECM is likely influencing downstream neurotoxic effects of AD.

Despite an increase in the plaque production on the soft substrates, both SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma and primary neurons showed a decreased toxicity to Aβ with decreasing substrate stiffness. This decrease in toxicity is associated with cytoskeletal actin remodeling, as cells plated on plastic, but pretreated with cytochalasin D displayed a recovery in viability in response to the oligomeric species. The softening of the ECM initiates actin cytoskeletal depolymerization, as a protective mechanism against neuronal loss and AD progression.

This work demonstrates that the ECM impacts Aβ endocytosis and aggregation, and the ECM prompts neuroprotective actin reorganization against the neurotoxic effects of AD. Further, it is demonstrated the biophysical role of ECM stiffness in modifying Aβ internalization, plaque production, and toxicity offers an improved in vitro model of critical AD components. By better understanding the cytoskeletal reorganization triggered by a softening ECM, potential novel avenues of therapeutic intervention could later be determined to stop the progression of the disease.


Alzheimer's Disease, Amyloid beta, Mechanics, Mechanobiology


xvii, 134 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 125-134).


Copyright © 2019 Terra Marie Kruger