Growth and remodeling of lymphatic vasculature occur during development and during various pathologic states. A major stimulus for this process is the unique lymphatic vascular endothelial growth factor-C (VEGF-C). Other endothelial growth factors, such as fibroblast growth factor-2 (FGF-2) or VEGF-A, may also contribute. Heparan sulfate is a linear sulfated polysaccharide that facilitates binding and action of some vascular growth factors such as FGF-2 and VEGF-A. However, a direct role for heparan sulfate in lymphatic endothelial growth and sprouting responses, including those mediated by VEGF-C, remains to be examined. We demonstrate that VEGF-C binds to heparan sulfate purified from primary lymphatic endothelia, and activation of lymphatic endothelial Erk1/2 in response to VEGF-C is reduced by interference with heparin or pretreatment of cells with heparinase, which destroys heparan sulfate. Such treatment also inhibited phosphorylation of the major VEGF-C receptor VEGFR-3 upon VEGF-C stimulation. Silencing lymphatic heparan sulfate chain biosynthesis inhibited VEGF-C-mediated Erk1/2 activation and abrogated VEGFR-3 receptor-dependent binding of VEGF-C to the lymphatic endothelial surface. These findings prompted targeting of lymphatic N-deacetylase/N-sulfotransferase-1 (Ndst1), a major sulfate-modifying heparan sulfate biosynthetic enzyme. VEGF-C-mediated Erk1/2 phosphorylation was inhibited in Ndst1-silenced lymphatic endothelia, and scratch-assay responses to VEGF-C and FGF-2 were reduced in Ndst1-deficient cells. In addition, lymphatic Ndst1 deficiency abrogated cell-based growth and proliferation responses to VEGF-C. In other studies, lymphatic endothelia cultured ex vivo from Ndst1 gene-targeted mice demonstrated reduced VEGF-C- and FGF-2-mediated sprouting in collagen matrix. Lymphatic heparan sulfate may represent a novel molecular target for therapeutic intervention
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