A deep learning approach to identify and segment alpha‑smooth muscle actin stress fiber positive cells
Cardiac fibrosis is a pathological process characterized by excessive tissue deposition, matrix remodeling, and tissue stiffening, which eventually leads to organ failure. On a cellular level, the development of fibrosis is associated with the activation of cardiac fibroblasts into myofibroblasts, a highly contractile and secretory phenotype. Myofibroblasts are commonly identified in vitro by the de novo assembly of alpha‑smooth muscle actin stress fibers; however, there are few methods to automate stress fiber identification, which can lead to subjectivity and tedium in the process. To address this limitation, we present a computer vision model to classify and segment cells containing alpha‑smooth muscle actin stress fibers into 2 classes (α‑SMA SF
- and α‑SMA SF‑), with a high degree of accuracy (cell accuracy: 77%, F1 score 0.79). The model combines standard image processing methods with deep learning techniques to achieve semantic segmentation of the different cell phenotypes. We apply this model to cardiac fibroblasts cultured on hyaluronic acid‑based hydrogels of various moduli to induce alpha‑smooth muscle actin stress fiber formation. The model successfully predicts the same trends in stress fiber identification as obtained with a manual analysis. Taken together, this work demonstrates a process to automate stress fiber identification in in vitro fibrotic models, thereby increasing reproducibility in fibroblast phenotypic characterization.