Three new VIB studies reveal key role of metabolism in blood vessel health

28 December 2018

The lab of Peter Carmeliet (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) zooms in on the growth of blood vessels in both healthy and pathological contexts, regularly making new discoveries that advance the field.

Recent pioneering studies include those spearheaded by Joanna Kalucka, Ulrike Brüning and Guy Eelen, which were published in Cell Metabolism and Nature. They focus on unraveling the role and function of the metabolism of endothelial cells - the individual building blocks of blood vessels. These new findings provide us more insights on how metabolism determines blood vessel growth and behavior, and how they can be translated to new therapeutic targets in blood vessel related disorders, such as cancer and diabetes. Together with Joanna, we talked about her paper describing the need of endothelial cells to burn fatty acids in order to stay healthy and withstand stress insults.

Joanna, what is it about endothelial cells (ECs) that fascinates you?
Joanna: “To tell the truth, before this study, my cell metabolism knowledge and experience to work with ECs was very limited – I have a background in immunology and tissue regeneration. However, I have always been fascinated by the great impact that these cells have on our body. After all, our organs rely on blood vessels for the continuous supply of nutrients and oxygen. Moreover, dysfunction of endothelial cells contributes to
multiple diseases. Therefore, I was really eager to get the opportunity to study these cells in the lab of Peter Carmeliet, who is pioneering studies on vascular endothelial cells and focuses on the development of treatments for vascular disorders based on his research findings.

Did you rely on technologies or approaches that were new to you?
Joanna: (laughs) “Basically everything! I knew cell culture techniques and had a strong background in wet lab work, but I’d never worked with ECs before in my life – never isolated one, never performed any measurement of metabolic fluxes. What really came in handy during the learning process was my knowledge of immunology and immune cell isolation. Therefore, it felt as a ‘natural’ next step to participate in the set-up of new protocols for the isolation and culture of endothelial cells from tumors. In addition, at that time the lab had
just recently purchased a FACS sorter, and my experience with this technology was definitely an asset when it came to freshly isolate and analyze ECs from mice.

“Because our study focuses on understanding the metabolism of ECs, metabolomics naturally played a key role. As a result, we had a vivid collaboration and interaction with Sarah-Maria Fendt and her group, as well as with Bart Ghesquière, head of the VIB Metabolomics Core in Leuven. In addition, thanks to a fruitful collaboration with Diether Lambrechts’ group, we were able to perform transcriptomics analysis of ECs in a timely manner. Without any doubts, the presence of these experts in our center was indispensable to obtain better insight, critical advice and to achieve high quality results.”

Any important lessons learned?
Joanna: “During this 3-year project, I was simultaneously involved in several other research studies in the lab. While it was sometimes challenging to be the leading person of my own study and also be part of many other projects, I acquired key knowledge of approaches and technologies that were vital to my own project. I also would like to underscore the fact that I had the privilege to work on this research project with extremely smart and talented PhD students. Laura Bierhansl, Nadine Vasconcelos Conchinha and Rindert Missiaen were
fully devoted to our study and without their constant help, engagement and determanation we would not have been able to achieve these results. I truly enjoyed our team-effort, all small meetings and data discussions, and I believe we learned a lot from each other and grew stronger together.

Eelen et al., Nature 2018
Kalucka, Bierhansl, Conchinha, Missiaen et al., Cell Metabolism 2018
Brüning, Morales Rodriguez et al., Cell Metabolism 2018

Joanna Kalucka​