Formation of new blood vessels

Vascular disease breakthrough

New light shed on the formation of blood vessels could herald personalised treatments for vascular diseases

1 April 2023

A research group led by Professor Christina Mitchell, in conjunction with collaborators from the University of Melbourne, the University of South Australia and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute has made a fundamental advance in our understanding of how new vessels form in the developing embryo.

The results have been published in the prestigious journal Science Advances.

Professor Richard Harvey, who was one of the authors, says: “In the future, this important work may contribute to more informed or personalised treatments for vascular diseases. It provides a better understanding of this important process in human biology, and how it goes awry in disease.”

Professor Richard Harvey

How the formation of new blood vessels is fundamental to life

In the growing embryo and foetus, new blood vessels spread throughout all tissues in a process called angiogenesis. They deliver oxygen carried by red blood cells, which allows the generation of energy necessary for cells to divide and acquire their specialist forms and function. For example, for the brain to form neuronal circuits and the heart to form contractile muscle. A tissue severely starved of oxygen is a tissue in crisis.

As they become established, vessels themselves specialise. Some will become arteries which deliver oxygenated blood from the heart to the body, and veins, which return deoxygenated blood back to the heart and lungs, where it becomes re-oxygenated.

Vessels also carry our immune cells which protect us from pathogens and assist immune cell infiltration into infected or injured areas. Cellular waste products and environmental toxins are also carried through vessels to their sites of disposal such as in the liver. Many diseases involve dysregulated angiogenesis, either as a primary cause (atherosclerosis) or secondarily (diabetes, cancer), and vascular function declines with age.

One of the most striking features of new vessel generation in the embryo or in a diseased tissue is the formation of so-called tip and stalk cells. Tip cells are the explorers and stalk cells are the stabilisers of new vessels, and, as they penetrate tissues to lay down new vessels, they can swap identities, a property called plasticity.

The exact biochemical details of how tip and stalk cells form and interconvert have long been of interest to researchers.

New findings

The team drilled down on the biochemical pathways that lead to specification of tip cells.

They showed that the precise balance between certain lipid-based molecules in tip cells is necessary for a proper balance between tip and stalk cell identities, and correct vessel formation. Professor Richard Harvey adds:

“We have long recognised the need to understand normal and abnormal angiogenesis in fine detail in order to better treat vascular-based diseases. This brings us one step closer.”

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

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