Endothelial Cells: Immunological Aspects


Strategically located at the interface between blood and the extravascular space, the endothelium is a highly specialised cellular system, which plays a key role in physiological processes such as blood supply, nutrient delivery, metabolic homeostasis and immune cell trafficking, as well as pathological processes such as inflammation. Endothelial cells represent a highly heterogeneous population of cells with the ability to interact with and modulate the function of immune cells. These cells regulate the traffic and functions of leucocytes by expressing adhesion molecules and cytokines in a regulated way. The ability of endothelial cells to compartmentalise memory T‐cell responses via organ‐selective expression of homing receptor ligands and to recruit antigen‐specific T cells into inflammatory sites by displaying cognate major histocompatibility complex–peptide complexes contributes a new dimension to the central role played by endothelium in the regulation of immune responses.

Key Concepts

  • Endothelial cells are not just an inert barrier between the blood and parenchyma.
  • The endothelial cell orchestrates cellular processes key to the inflammatory reaction.
  • A regulated use of different adhesion molecules and chemokines guides tissue‐specific leucocyte extravasation.
  • Especially, microvascular endothelial cells can act as antigen‐presenting cells, leading to T lymphocyte extravasation.
  • Endothelial cells are both targets for and a source of cytokines – soluble polypeptides acting as mediators of communication with leucocytes and other cells.
  • Vasculature senescence plays an active role in promoting an inflammatory response.

Keywords: cytokines; endothelial cells; adhesion molecules; inflammation; chemokines; homing receptors; antigen presentation; transendothelial migration; immunoregulation; senescence

Figure 1. The leucocyte adhesion cascade. The emigration of circulating leucocytes is tightly regulated by the sequential action of molecular signals and adhesion molecules. Leucocyte tethering and rolling along inflamed endothelium are initiated by selectins (such as P‐selectin and E‐selectin). Rolling slows down circulating leucocytes, bringing them into close proximity with EC and allowing binding of chemokines on inflamed endothelium to their specific chemokine receptors on leucocytes.
Figure 2. Cytokine and bacterial product receptors expressed by endothelial cells. ATF2, activating transcription factor 2; CK, chemokine; DARC, Duffy antigen receptor for chemokines; EPO, erythropoietin; Gb3, globotriaosylceramide; GM‐CSF, granulocyte–macrophage colony‐stimulating factor; HMGI, high mobility group I; IFN‐γ, interferon‐γ; IL‐1, interleukin 1; IL‐1Ra, interleukin 1 receptor antagonist; IRF‐1, interferon regulatory factor 1; L, ligand; LPS, lipopolysaccharide; non‐γc, no common γ chain; PD, positive regulatory domain; PG, proteoglycans; R, receptor; VCAM‐1, vascular cellular adhesion molecule 1; VT, verotoxin. Modified from Mantovani et al. 1997 © Elsevier.
Figure 3. Functional programmes activated by cytokines in endothelial cells. Chemokines have both positive and negative effects on endothelial cells. Bold and plain types indicate the relative strengths of activation. EPO, erythropoietin; FGF, fibroblast growth factor; G‐CSF, granulocyte colony‐stimulating factor; GM‐CSF, granulocyte–macrophage colony‐stimulating factor; IFN‐γ, interferon‐γ; IL, interleukin; VEGF, vascular endothelium growth factor. Modified from Mantovani et al. 1997 © Elsevier.
Figure 4. The endothelium compartmentalises memory T‐cell response. The homing receptor expressed by memory T cells that preferentially migrate to the indicated organs are shown in the boxes.
Figure 5. Antigen‐dependent T‐cell trafficking. In cooperation with inflammatory signals such as chemokines (navy blue), by displaying tissue‐derived antigens (purple), endothelial cells promote the recruitment of specific activated T cells (orange) into the tissue.


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Cheung, Kenneth CP, Ward, Eleanor J, Fu, Hongmei, and Marelli‐Berg, Federica M(Jan 2018) Endothelial Cells: Immunological Aspects. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000513.pub3]