Anna Rita Cantelmo: when the blood vessel cells malfunction

Passionate about vascular biology, Anna Rita Cantelmo has always wanted to conduct high-level research. An ambition that led her to leave Italy for Belgium, and then France, on her quest to decipher the biology of the cells that line our blood vessels. By studying their function – and their dysfunction – she looks for the mechanisms by which these cells promote the development of certain diseases, such as cancer or atherosclerosis. Thanks to the Atip-Avenir funding she obtained in 2021, she has already identified key biological pathways.

Anna Rita Cantelmo, Nuclear Receptors, Metabolic and Cardiovascular Diseases unit (Unit 1011 Inserm/Institut Pasteur/Lille University/Lille University Hospital), at Institut Pasteur in Lille.

The endothelial cells that line our vessels are capable of changing to acquire new properties and perform new functions. Referred to as endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition, this process is normal and physiological during embryonic life, but not after birth. There it leads to a change in the vessels’ properties and can promote certain diseases. For example, in cancer it facilitates the spread of metastases in the body from a primary tumour because, by making the endothelial barrier more permeable, it enables cancer cells to pass into the bloodstream. However, therapeutic approaches that target the formation of metastases are still limited.

This is where Anna Rita Cantelmo and her team are currently devoting much of their research. ‘While most studies have focused on targeting the invasive properties of malignant cells, I’m looking for new pathways to treat metastases by targeting the endothelial cells’, she explains. Thanks to the Atip-Avenir funding obtained for this project in 2021, she has hired a post-doc and a research engineer, forming a rapidly expanding team: ‘Just like me, my team is very committed,’ she smiles. It’s a very stimulating working atmosphere, in which we can conduct original explorations to deepen our understanding of vascular biology. Receiving this prestigious funding has validated my expertise and given credibility to my research field, enabling me to develop my network and devise new collaborations. While it is stressful because of my many responsibilities as team leader, it’s also what I’ve always wanted.

From Lombardy to Hauts-de-France

Based on studies using cultured cells, the team has already identified players that participate in pathways involved in controlling calcium and cellular metabolism – whose dysregulation leads the vascular wall to become looser and more permeable. These initial data have led to her funding being renewed until July 2026. ‘So we’ll be able to confirm our findings and broaden our scope’, says Cantelmo. First, she would like to validate these findings in vivo in an animal model and on patient tissue samples. An important step because, for the time being, ‘the involvement of endothelial transformation in the dissemination of all types of solid tumours is a subject of controversy in the scientific community’, she explains. Subsequently, this research may serve as a basis for studying other diseases: ‘There is vascular wall dysfunction in atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases. We also want to study the specific cell mechanisms that promote this.

It must be said that vascular biology has always been her central concern, given that it was the subject of her doctoral research in Italy. A fledgling passion that became an ambition to go much further: ‘I realised that the level of research and the opportunities offered to researchers were insufficient in my country.’ So she headed to Belgium, where she worked on tumour endothelial cell metabolism alongside Peter Carmeliet. Then the opportunity for funding that enabled her to become independent led her to Lille, where she now works at the Inserm unit led by Bart Staels. ‘Having my own research team reflects what I was looking for: a certain flexibility in work methodologies and the possibility to apply what we learn to different disease contexts. This really fulfils my desire to study complex and difficult problems and contribute to the state of knowledge.

Anna Rita Cantelmo leads a team in the Nuclear Receptors, Metabolic and Cardiovascular Diseases unit (Unit 1011 Inserm/Institut Pasteur/Lille University/Lille University Hospital), at Institut Pasteur in Lille.

Author: C. G.