During angiogenesis, anastomosing capillary sprouts align to form complex three-dimensional networks of new blood vessels. Using an endothelial cell spheroid model that was developed to study endothelial cell differentiation processes, we have devised a novel collagen gel-based three-dimensional in vitro angiogenesis assay. In this assay, cell number-defined, gel-embedded endothelial cell spheroids act as a cellular delivery device, which serves as a focal starting point for the sprouting of lumenized capillary-like structures that can be induced to form complex anastomosing networks. Formation of capillary anastomoses is associated with tensional remodeling of the collagen matrix and directional sprouting of outgrowing capillaries towards each other. To analyze whether directional sprouting is dependent on cytokine gradients or on endothelial cell-derived tractional forces transduced through the extracellular matrix, we designed a matrix tension generator that enables the application of defined tensional forces on the extracellular matrix. Using this matrix tension generator, causal evidence is presented that tensional forces on a fibrillar extracellular matrix such as type I collagen, but not fibrin, are sufficient to guide directional outgrowth of endothelial cells. RGD peptides but not control RAD peptides disrupted the integrity of sprouting capillary-like structures and induced detachment of outgrowing endothelial cells cultured on top of collagen gels, but did not inhibit primary outgrowth of endothelial cells. The data establish the endothelial cell spheroid-based three-dimensional angiogenesis technique as a standardized, highly reproducible quantitative assay for in vitro angiogenesis studies and demonstrate that integrin-dependent matrix tensional forces control directional capillary sprouting and network formation.

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