Transcriptional profiling of human brain endothelial cells reveals key properties crucial for predictive in vitro blood-brain barrier models

PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e38149. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038149. Epub 2012 May 31.


Brain microvascular endothelial cells (BEC) constitute the blood-brain barrier (BBB) which forms a dynamic interface between the blood and the central nervous system (CNS). This highly specialized interface restricts paracellular diffusion of fluids and solutes including chemicals, toxins and drugs from entering the brain. In this study we compared the transcriptome profiles of the human immortalized brain endothelial cell line hCMEC/D3 and human primary BEC. We identified transcriptional differences in immune response genes which are directly related to the immortalization procedure of the hCMEC/D3 cells. Interestingly, astrocytic co-culturing reduced cell adhesion and migration molecules in both BECs, which possibly could be related to regulation of immune surveillance of the CNS controlled by astrocytic cells within the neurovascular unit. By matching the transcriptome data from these two cell lines with published transcriptional data from freshly isolated mouse BECs, we discovered striking differences that could explain some of the limitations of using cultured BECs to study BBB properties. Key protein classes such as tight junction proteins, transporters and cell surface receptors show differing expression profiles. For example, the claudin-5, occludin and JAM2 expression is dramatically reduced in the two human BEC lines, which likely explains their low transcellular electric resistance and paracellular leakiness. In addition, the human BEC lines express low levels of unique brain endothelial transporters such as Glut1 and Pgp. Cell surface receptors such as LRP1, RAGE and the insulin receptor that are involved in receptor-mediated transport are also expressed at very low levels. Taken together, these data illustrate that BECs lose their unique protein expression pattern outside of their native environment and display a more generic endothelial cell phenotype. A collection of key genes that seems to be highly regulated by the local surroundings of BEC within the neurovascular unit are presented and discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / metabolism
  • Biological Transport / genetics
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / metabolism*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules / genetics
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules / metabolism
  • Cell Line
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Interferons / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Models, Animal
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / genetics
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction
  • Tight Junctions / metabolism
  • Transcriptome*


  • Cell Adhesion Molecules
  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • Interferons