Verteporfin treatment controls morphology, phenotype, and global gene expression for cells of the human nucleus pulposus

Bailey V. Fearing, Julie E. Speer, Liufang Jing, Aravind Kalathil, Michael P. Kelly, Jacob M. Buchowski, Lukas P. Zebala, Scott Luhmann, Munish C. Gupta, Lori A. Setton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Cells of the nucleus pulposus (NP) are essential contributors to extracellular matrix synthesis and function of the intervertebral disc. With age and degeneration, the NP becomes stiffer and more dehydrated, which is associated with a loss of phenotype and biosynthetic function for its resident NP cells. Also, with aging, the NP cell undergoes substantial morphological changes from a rounded shape with pronounced vacuoles in the neonate and juvenile, to one that is more flattened and spread with a loss of vacuoles. Here, we make use of the clinically relevant pharmacological treatment verteporfin (VP), previously identified as a disruptor of yes-associated protein-TEA domain family member-binding domain (TEAD) signaling, to promote morphological changes in adult human NP cells in order to study variations in gene expression related to differences in cell shape. Treatment of adult, degenerative human NP cells with VP caused a shift in morphology from a spread, fibroblastic-like shape to a rounded, clustered morphology with decreased transcriptional activity of TEAD and serum-response factor. These changes were accompanied by an increased expression of vacuoles, NP-specific gene markers, and biosynthetic activity. The contemporaneous observation of VP-induced changes in cell shape and prominent, time-dependent changes within the transcriptome of NP cells occurred over all timepoints in culture. Enriched gene sets with the transition to VP-induced cell rounding suggest a major role for cell adhesion, cytoskeletal remodeling, vacuolar lumen, and MAPK activity in the NP phenotypic and functional response to changes in cell shape.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1111
JournalJOR Spine
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • RNA-sequencing
  • cell shape
  • intervertebral disc
  • mechanotransduction
  • phenotype


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