The vasculature plays an indispensible role in organ development and maintenance of tissue homeostasis, such that disturbances to it impact greatly on developmental and postnatal health. Although cell turnover in healthy blood vessels is low, it increases considerably under pathological conditions. The principle sources for this phenomenon have long been considered to be the recruitment of cells from the peripheral circulation and the re-entry of mature cells in the vessel wall back into cell cycle. However, recent discoveries have also uncovered the presence of a range of multipotent and lineage-restricted progenitor cells in the mural layers of postnatal blood vessels, possessing high proliferative capacity and potential to generate endothelial, smooth muscle, hematopoietic or mesenchymal cell progeny. In particular, the tunica adventitia has emerged as a progenitor-rich compartment with niche-like characteristics that support and regulate vascular wall progenitor cells. Preliminary data indicate the involvement of some of these vascular wall progenitor cells in vascular disease states, adding weight to the notion that the adventitia is integral to vascular wall pathogenesis, and raising potential implications for clinical therapies. This review discusses the current body of evidence for the existence of vascular wall progenitor cell subpopulations from development to adulthood and addresses the gains made and significant challenges that lie ahead in trying to accurately delineate their identities, origins, regulatory pathways, and relevance to normal vascular structure and function, as well as disease.
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