At present, little is known about how endothelial cells respond to spatial variations in fluid shear stress such as those that occur locally during embryonic development, at heart valve leaflets, and at sites of aneurysm formation. We built an impinging flow device that exposes endothelial cells to gradients of shear stress. Using this device, we investigated the response of microvascular endothelial cells to shear-stress gradients that ranged from 0 to a peak shear stress of 9-210 dyn/cm2. We observe that at high confluency, these cells migrate against the direction of fluid flow and concentrate in the region of maximum wall shear stress, whereas low-density microvascular endothelial cells that lack cell-cell contacts migrate in the flow direction. In addition, the cells align parallel to the flow at low wall shear stresses but orient perpendicularly to the flow direction above a critical threshold in local wall shear stress. Our observations suggest that endothelial cells are exquisitely sensitive to both magnitude and spatial gradients in wall shear stress. The impinging flow device provides a, to our knowledge, novel means to study endothelial cell migration and polarization in response to gradients in physical forces such as wall shear stress.
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