Vascular Endothelial Cells Communicate in a Vast Network

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Vascular endothelial cells use a vast network of connections to control all cardiovascular functions and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to a new study published in PNAS.

It has long been known that the development of these conditions begins with changes in the vascular endothelial cells lining the body’s blood vessels. But why and how changes in endothelial cell function occur is not entirely clear.

Research has revealed that these cells communicate with each other using a sophisticated system. Failures in this communication system may be the first step in the development of cardiovascular disease.

The endothelium, which forms the thin inner layer of cells in blood vessels, regulates blood flow, blood pressure, blood clotting, inflammation and response to disease. On a continual basis, it processes the vast amounts of information held in the composition of blood, and chemicals in the area around each blood vessel to keep the cardiovascular system working properly.

The study identified clusters of cells in the endothelium that are specialised to particular functions and they operate in ‘cliques’. Between cliques, numerous interlinked connections act to convey information, with a high density of connections to protect the system against communication failures. The system bypasses neighbouring cells by use of shortcuts to transmit information quickly over distance.

The endothelial communication network design is in fact remarkably similar to the communication operations of the internet and it is effective for local blood vessel control and global efficiency in determining overall cardiovascular activity. The design is robust, so that communication systems to control cardiovascular activity will not fail even when there is extensive damage.

The findings also indicate that changes in the organisation of communication, rather than behaviour and function of individual cells, may underlie disease.

The researchers addressed the nature of the communication network by using single-cell calcium ion imaging across thousands of endothelial cells in intact blood vessels and applying mathematical network (graph) theory.

Professor John McCarron at Strathclude University said: “Cells in the endothelium are a major target for the control of cardiovascular disease and are often treated as being a uniform population of cells. Our findings show the cells are not uniform but specialised to particular types of function.

“There is a well-organised, rapid and robust communication system that shares information so that co-ordinated responses occur. The communication system offers new targets for therapy development and insights into why developing treatments has proven so difficult.”

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