Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

Lymphatic vessels in health and disease: Role of the VEGF-C/VEGFR-3 pathway and the transcription factor FOXC2

Terhi Kärpänen

Doctoral dissertation, June 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Biosciences, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Division of Biochemistry and Molecular/Cancer Biology Laboratory, Biomedicum Helsinki and Haartman Institute, University of Helsinki.

The circulatory system consists of two vessel types, which act in concert but significantly differ from each other in several structural and functional aspects as well as in mechanisms governing their development. The blood vasculature transports oxygen, nutrients and cells to tissues whereas the lymphatic vessels collect extravasated fluid, macromolecules and cells of the immune system and return them back to the blood circulation. Understanding the molecular mechanisms behind the developmental and functional regulation of the lymphatic system long lagged behind that of the blood vasculature. Identification of several markers specific for the lymphatic endothelium, and the discovery of key factors controlling the development and function of the lymphatic vessels have greatly facilitated research in lymphatic biology over the past few years. Recognition of the crucial importance of lymphatic vessels in certain pathological conditions, most importantly in tumor metastasis, lymphedema and inflammation, has increased interest in this vessel type, for so long overshadowed by its blood vascular cousin.

VEGF-C (Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor C) and its receptor VEGFR-3 are essential for the development and maintenance of embryonic lymphatic vasculature. Furthermore, VEGF-C has been shown to be upregulated in many tumors and its expression found to positively correlate with lymphatic metastasis. Mutations in the transcription factor FOXC2 result in lymphedema-distichiasis (LD), which suggests a role for FOXC2 in the regulation of lymphatic development or function. This study was undertaken to obtain more information about the role of the VEGF-C/VEGFR-3 pathway and FOXC2 in regulating lymphatic development, growth, function and survival in physiological as well as in pathological conditions. We found that the silk-like carboxyterminal propeptide is not necessary for the lymphangiogenic activity of VEGF-C, but enhances it, and that the aminoterminal propeptide mediates binding of VEGF-C to the neuropilin-2 coreceptor, which we suggest to be involved in VEGF-C signalling via VEGFR-3. Furthermore, we found that overexpression of VEGF-C increases tumor lymphangiogenesis and intralymphatic tumor growth, both of which could be inhibited by a soluble form of VEGFR-3. These results suggest that blocking VEGFR-3 signalling could be used for prevention of lymphatic tumor metastasis. This might prove to be a safe treatment method for human cancer patients, since inhibition of VEGFR-3 activity had no effect on the normal lymphatic vasculature in adult mice, though it did lead to regression of lymphatic vessels in the postnatal period. Interestingly, in contrast to VEGF-C, which induces lymphangiogenesis already during embryonic development, we found that the related VEGF-D promotes lymphatic vessel growth only after birth. These results suggest, that the lymphatic vasculature undergoes postnatal maturation, which renders it independent of ligand induced VEGFR-3 signalling for survival but responsive to VEGF-D for growth. Finally, we show that FOXC2 is necessary for the later stages of lymphatic development by regulating the morphogenesis of lymphatic valves, as well as interactions of the lymphatic endothelium with vascular mural cells, in which it cooperates with VEGFR-3. Furthermore, our study indicates that the absence of lymphatic valves, abnormal association of lymphatic capillaries with mural cells and an increased amount of basement membrane underlie the pathogenesis of LD.

These findings have given new insight into the mechanisms of normal lymphatic development, as well as into the pathogenesis of diseases involving the lymphatic vasculature. They also reveal new therapeutic targets for the prevention and treatment of tumor metastasis and lymphatic vascular failure in certain forms of lymphedema. Several interesting questions were posed that still need to be addressed. Most importantly, the mechanism of VEGF-C promoted tumor metastasis and the molecular nature of the postnatal lymphatic vessel maturation remain to be elucidated.

The title page of the publication

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Last updated 19.06.2006

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