Reciprocal epithelial:endothelial paracrine interactions during thyroid development govern follicular organization and C-cells differentiation

Dev Biol. 2013 Sep 1;381(1):227-40. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2013.04.022. Epub 2013 May 21.


The thyroid is a highly vascularized endocrine gland, displaying a characteristic epithelial organization in closed spheres, called follicles. Here we investigate how endothelial cells are recruited into the developing thyroid and if they control glandular organization as well as thyrocytes and C-cells differentiation. We show that endothelial cells closely surround, and then invade the expanding thyroid epithelial cell mass to become closely associated with nascent polarized follicles. This close and sustained endothelial:epithelial interaction depends on epithelial production of the angiogenic factor, Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor-A (VEGF-A), as its thyroid-specific genetic inactivation reduced the endothelial cell pool of the thyroid by > 90%. Vegfa KO also displayed decreased C-cells differentiation and impaired organization of the epithelial cell mass into follicles. We developed an ex vivo model of thyroid explants that faithfully mimicks bilobation of the thyroid anlagen, endothelial and C-cells invasion, folliculogenesis and differentiation. Treatment of thyroid explants at e12.5 with a VEGFR2 inhibitor ablated the endothelial pool and reproduced ex vivo folliculogenesis defects observed in conditional Vegfa KO. In the absence of any blood supply, rescue by embryonic endothelial progenitor cells restored folliculogenesis, accelerated lumen expansion and stimulated calcitonin expression by C-cells. In conclusion, our data demonstrate that, in developing mouse thyroid, epithelial production of VEGF-A is necessary for endothelial cells recruitment and expansion. In turn, endothelial cells control epithelial reorganization in follicles and C-cells differentiation.

Keywords: C-cells; Endothelium; Epithelium; Explants; Follicles; Paracrine control; Polarity; Thyroid; VEGF-A.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcitonin / metabolism
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Endothelial Cells / cytology*
  • Endothelium / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology*
  • Epithelium / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Stem Cells / cytology
  • Thyroid Gland / blood supply
  • Thyroid Gland / embryology*
  • Thyroid Gland / growth & development
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / metabolism
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Receptor-2 / metabolism


  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A
  • Calcitonin
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Receptor-2