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Vascular calcification predicts atherosclerotic plaque rupture and cardiovascular events. Retrospective studies of women taking bisphosphonates (BiPs), a proposed therapy for vascular calcification, showed that BiPs paradoxically increased morbidity in patients with prior acute cardiovascular events but decreased mortality in event-free patients. Calcifying extracellular vesicles (EVs), released by cells within atherosclerotic plaques, aggregate and nucleate calcification. We hypothesized that BiPs block EV aggregation and modify existing mineral growth, potentially altering microcalcification morphology and the risk of plaque rupture. Three-dimensional (3D) collagen hydrogels incubated with calcifying EVs were used to mimic fibrous cap calcification in vitro, while an ApoE−/− mouse was used as a model of atherosclerosis in vivo. EV aggregation and formation of stress-inducing microcalcifications was imaged via scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM). In both models, BiP (ibandronate) treatment resulted in time-dependent changes in microcalcification size and mineral morphology, dependent on whether BiP treatment was initiated before or after the expected onset of microcalcification formation. Following BiP treatment at any time, microcalcifications formed in vitro were predicted to have an associated threefold decrease in fibrous cap tensile stress compared to untreated controls, estimated using finite element analysis (FEA). These findings support our hypothesis that BiPs alter EV-driven calcification. The study also confirmed that our 3D hydrogel is a viable platform to study EVmediated mineral nucleation and evaluate potential therapies for cardiovascular calcification.


This work was originally published in PNAS, available at

This open access article is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND).



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