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The Role of Pro-fibrotic Myofibroblasts in Systemic Sclerosis: from Origin to Therapeutic Targeting

Systemic sclerosis (SSc, scleroderma) is a complex connective tissue disorder characterized by multisystem clinical manifestations resulting from immune dysregulation/autoimmunity, vasculopathy and, most notably, progressive fibrosis of the skin and internal organs. In recent years, it has emerged that the main drivers of SSc-related tissue fibrosis are myofibroblasts, a type of mesenchymal cells with both the extracellular matrix-synthesizing features of fibroblasts and the cytoskeletal characteristics of contractile smooth muscle cells. The accumulation and persistent activation of pro-fibrotic myofibroblasts during SSc development and progression result into elevated mechanical stress and reduced matrix plasticity within the affected tissues and may be ascribed to a reduced susceptibility of these cells to pro-apoptotic stimuli, as well as their increased formation from tissue-resident fibroblasts or transition from different cell types. Given the crucial role of myofibroblasts in SSc pathogenesis, finding the way to inhibit myofibroblast differentiation and accumulation by targeting their formation, function and survival may represent an effective approach to hamper the fibrotic process or even halt or reverse established fibrosis. In this review, we discuss the role of myofibroblasts in SSc-related fibrosis, with a special focus on their cellular origin and the signaling pathways implicated in their formation and persistent activation. Furthermore, we provide an overview of potential therapeutic strategies targeting myofibroblasts that may be able to counteract fibrosis in this pathological condition.

Journal Title: Current Molecular Medicine

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