Endothelial Cells: Definition, Types, Structure, Functions

Endothelial cells are specialized cells that cover the inside walls of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. They form a thin and delicate layer of endothelium, which acts as a barrier separating the bloodstream from the surrounding tissues.

Endothelial cells play an important role in maintaining vascular homeostasis and regulating blood flow. These cells regulate the movement of fluids into and out of tissues. This function is essential for maintaining overall bodily function. These cells are also involved in various other physiological processes, including vasodilation and vasoconstriction, immune responses, inflammation, and the prevention of blood clot formation.

Endothelial Cells
Endothelial Cells

Studying the characteristics and functions of endothelial cells is important for understanding different diseases caused by dysfunction in the endothelium and developing targeted therapeutic strategies to maintain vascular health.

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Types of Endothelial Cells

Endothelial cells can be categorized into two types based on their location and function: vascular endothelial cells and lymphatic endothelial cells. 

1. Vascular Endothelial Cells

  • Vascular endothelial cells (VECs) are a type of endothelial cells that cover the inside walls of blood vessels, such as capillaries, veins, and arteries, and act as a protective barrier between the circulating blood and the surrounding tissues.
  • These cells perform vital functions such as regulating blood flow, controlling the transfer of nutrients, gases, and waste products, maintaining vascular tone, and preventing blood clot formation. They also participate in immune responses, inflammation, and angiogenesis. 
  • VECs have specialized characteristics depending on where they are located in the vascular system. For example, endothelial cells in arteries may experience higher shear stress from blood flow and thus may have different structural and functional features compared to those in veins or capillaries.

2. Lymphatic Endothelial Cells

  • Lymphatic endothelial cells (LECs) are endothelial cells found in the inner walls of lymphatic vessels, which are part of the lymphatic system.
  • These specialized cells are responsible for transporting lymph, a fluid rich in white blood cells, proteins, and cellular waste, from the tissues back into the bloodstream. They also play important roles in immune surveillance, maintaining fluid balance, and the absorption of dietary fats from the intestines.
  • LECs regulate the flow of lymph and maintain fluid balance. By forming the inner lining of lymphatic vessels, LECs help ensure that lymph is properly collected, transported, and filtered through the lymph nodes. 

Anatomy and Structure of Endothelial Cells

The anatomy and structure of endothelial cells show diversity, with distinct subtypes existing based on their location and function. They are present in all major vessels, surrounded by thick layers of connective tissue and smooth muscle cells.

The endothelium contains a single layer of endothelial cells supported by a thin layer of extracellular matrix known as the basal lamina. Pericytes and smooth muscle cells may also be present in larger blood vessels, providing structural support and regulating vessel diameter. 

Endothelial cells attach to the basal lamina, together forming the innermost layer of the blood vessel wall known as the tunica intima which provides a smooth surface for blood to flow, facilitating circulation throughout the body.

Endothelial cells are thin and elongated, forming a continuous barrier separating the bloodstream from the surrounding tissues. They measure approximately 30 to 50 µm in length, 10 to 30 µm in width, and 0.1 to 10 µm in thickness. Despite their small size, they collectively cover a vast surface area within the body. 

These cells show morphological and functional variations based on their location and specific function. For example, endothelial cells in large arteries may differ in structure and function from those in small capillaries. 

Functions of the Endothelial Cells

  • Hemostasis: Endothelial cells initiate hemostasis by constricting blood vessels to reduce blood flow at the site of injury. They release substances like von Willebrand factor (vWF) and tissue factor to activate platelets, helping in blood clot formation. Endothelial cells promote platelet adhesion by exposing collagen and vWF, promoting platelet binding.
  • Prevention of Thrombosis: Endothelial cells prevent thrombosis through anticoagulant and antiplatelet mechanisms, ensuring clot formation only at sites of injury. These cells produce substances such as nitric oxide (NO) and prostacyclin, which inhibit blood clot formation and promote blood fluidity. Endothelial dysfunction can disrupt this balance, leading to bleeding or thrombosis, and contributing to several vascular complications. 
  • Leukocyte Interaction: Endothelial cells facilitate the movement of leukocytes from the bloodstream into the surrounding tissues. This process is necessary for immune responses and inflammation. This involves leukocyte capture, rolling, firm adhesion, and migration across the endothelium. Endothelial adhesion molecules like selectins and integrins, along with their ligands on leukocytes, help these interactions.
  • Vascular permeability: Endothelial cells regulate the movement of substances, including fluids, electrolytes, and other molecules, between the blood and surrounding tissues. They form a selectively permeable barrier with tight junctions under normal conditions. They maintain the integrity of the vascular barrier, ensuring substances like nutrients and oxygen can pass while preventing the leakage of harmful substances into tissues.
  • Regulation of Vascular Tone: Regulation of vascular tone refers to the adjustment of the diameter of blood vessels to control blood flow and maintain blood pressure within a normal range. This process involves the contraction (vasoconstriction) or relaxation (vasodilation) of the blood vessels. Endothelial cells release various vasoactive substances that affect vascular tone, including vasodilators like nitric oxide and vasoconstrictors like endothelin. These molecules help regulate blood vessel diameter and blood flow.
  • Angiogenesis: Endothelial cells are also involved in angiogenesis, the process of formation of new blood vessels from pre-existing ones. Angiogenesis is essential for processes like wound healing and is involved in various pathological conditions, like inflammatory disorders and cancer.

Diseases and Disorders of Endothelial Cells

  • Endothelial dysfunction refers to an imbalance in the behavior of the endothelial cells which leads to reduced vasodilation, inflammation, and an increased risk for blood clot formation. It occurs due to the imbalance in the production of nitric oxide. This condition can cause various cardiovascular diseases, like hypertension, heart failure, diabetes, and chronic kidney failure. Factors like obesity, smoking, poor sleep, infections, and high sugar intake can damage the endothelium. 
  • Atherosclerosis is a cardiovascular disease where plaque builds up within artery walls. This plaque is made up of substances like fatty deposits, cellular waste, and other blood components. Over time, these deposits narrow the arteries, reducing blood flow to vital organs and tissues and increasing the risk of blood clots. It can result in serious complications like heart attacks and strokes.
  • Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) happens when blood vessels in the limbs narrow or get blocked resulting in reduced blood flow and symptoms like leg pain and cramping during physical activity. Endothelial dysfunction contributes to the progression of PVD with risk factors including smoking, diabetes, previous coronary artery disease, and lack of activity.
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) is characterized by narrowing or blockage of coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, leading to an imbalance in oxygen demand and supply in the heart tissue. It develops due to the accumulation of plaques in the walls of the coronary artery.
Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease
  • Stroke, especially ischemic stroke, is linked to endothelial dysfunction which leads to the development of atherosclerosis in cerebral arteries, predisposing individuals to ischemic stroke.
Common Types of Stroke
Common Types of Stroke
  • Chronic kidney disease (CKD) occurs when the kidneys lose their ability to filter waste from the blood. This can lead to the accumulation of toxins and waste products in the body, which causes various health issues over time. Endothelial dysfunction plays a role in CKD by damaging the blood vessels in the kidneys.


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About Author

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Sanju Tamang

Sanju Tamang completed her Bachelor's (B.Tech) in Biotechnology from Kantipur Valley College, Lalitpur, Nepal. She is interested in genetics, microbiome, and their roles in human health. She is keen to learn more about biological technologies that improve human health and quality of life.

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