Background Following tissue injury, monocytes can enter the tissue and differentiate into fibroblast-like cells called fibrocytes, but little is known about what regulates this differentiation. Extracellular matrix contains high molecular weight hyaluronic acid (HMWHA; ~2×106 Da). During injury, HMWHA breaks down to low molecular weight hyaluronic acid (LMWHA; ~0.8–8×105 Da). Methods and Findings In this report, we show that HMWHA potentiates the differentiation of human monocytes into fibrocytes, while LMWHA inhibits fibrocyte differentiation. Digestion of HMWHA with hyaluronidase produces small hyaluronic acid fragments, and these fragments inhibit fibrocyte differentiation. Monocytes internalize HMWHA and LMWHA equally well, suggesting that the opposing effects on fibrocyte differentiation are not due to differential internalization of HMWHA or LMWHA. Adding HMWHA to PBMC does not appear to affect the levels of the hyaluronic acid receptor CD44, whereas adding LMWHA decreases CD44 levels. The addition of anti-CD44 antibodies potentiates fibrocyte differentiation, suggesting that CD44 mediates at least some of the effect of hyaluronic acid on fibrocyte differentiation. The fibrocyte differentiation-inhibiting factor serum amyloid P (SAP) inhibits HMWHA-induced fibrocyte differentiation and potentiates LMWHA-induced inhibition. Conversely, LMWHA inhibits the ability of HMWHA, interleukin-4 (IL-4), or interleukin-13 (IL-13) to promote fibrocyte differentiation. Conclusions We hypothesize that hyaluronic acid signals at least in part through CD44 to regulate fibrocyte differentiation, with a dominance hierarchy of SAP>LMWHA≥HMWHA>IL-4 or IL-13.
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