Pericyte-Endothelial Cell Interactions during Blood Vessel Formation and in Diabetic Scenarios

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Virginia Tech


Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is an incurable, chronic disease that is the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults. A prominent characteristic of DR is the extensive dysfunction within the retina microvasculature. Specialized vascular cells known as pericytes (PCs) are lost or become dysfunctional during disease progression; a thickening of the extracellular matrix (ECM) composing the vascular basement membrane (vBM) and endothelial cell (EC) tight junction disruption are also key features of this disease and contribute to its pathogenesis. PC loss is believed to be a central cue for disease initiation. However, studies inducing PC loss and observing acute changes in the vasculature did not report severe vessel damage or vBM thickening, suggesting that the effects of PC loss occur over a longer period of time. Because the chronic effects of PC loss are more difficult to ascertain, especially in a complex condition such as DR, the mechanisms underlying microvascular defects in DR remain poorly understood.

The work presented in this dissertation focuses on pericyte-endothelial cell interactions and their interplay with the ECM/vBM during a variety of physiological and pathological conditions. First, we isolated and functionally validated a primary mouse embryonic PC cell line that we then applied to a co-culture model with ECs to better understand the dynamic interactions between these two critical components of the capillary wall. In the co-culture model, we found that primary PCs promoted EC organization into vessel-like structures and enhanced EC-EC junctions. To complement these in vitro studies, we analyzed animal models and human tissue for the PC-EC interactions and ECM/vBM remodeling under different conditions (physiological and pathological). Moreover, we analyzed microglia and astrocytes to enhance our understanding of the tissue-vessel interface, bolstering our experimental results and facilitating the generation of more hypotheses for future research.

Overall, our work suggests that PC-EC interactions in diabetic scenarios play a crucial role in ECM/vBM remodeling; engagement with the ECM/vBM in turn impacted PC behaviors including migration away from the endothelium and induced EC loss of tight junctions, key changes in the onset and progression of DR.



diabetic retinopathy, pericyte, endothelial cell, extracellular matrix