In vitro morphogenesis of epithelial cells to form tube-like structures is regulated by hepatocyte growth factor-scatter factor (HGF/SF). The placenta is a rich source of HGF/SF, and its absence in mice has been shown to lead to impaired placental growth and embryonic death. There is no information in the literature regarding in vitro morphogenesis of human cytotrophoblasts or the effect of HGF/SF on this process. In this study, cytotrophoblasts were isolated from human placentae obtained from all three trimesters of gestation and cultured on the recombinant basement membrane matrix (Matrigel). Under these conditions, cytotrophoblasts participated in morphogenetic events including formation of spheroid-like structures, radial linear processes with branching, and invaded Matrigel and formed large, tube-like structures. The presence of a developing lumen was documented in the linear projections arising from spheroids and in the tube-like structures by both confocal and transmission electron microscopy. Immunohistochemistry was used to characterize the phenotype of the cells, and staining with anti-cytokeratin and anti-E-cadherin antibodies confirmed the presence of cytotrophoblasts in both the spheroids and tube-like structures. Recombinant HGF (rHGF) significantly increased the invasive activity of cytotrophoblasts isolated from the first and second (P < 0.001) and third trimesters (P < 0.01). In addition, rHGF significantly increased the percentage of spheroids with branching processes in the first and second trimesters (P < 0.05). Anti-HGF antibody inhibited both these effects in a dose-dependent manner, indicating the specificity of the above findings. This study provides new evidence indicating that HGF/SF regulates invasion and branching morphogenesis of cytotrophoblasts throughout gestation, with maximum effects in the first and second trimester. These findings may help to elucidate the importance of the reduced expression of HGF/SF identified in placentae from women with preeclampsia or intrauterine growth restriction and suggest that HGF/SF may serve as an important candidate in therapeutic intervention strategies.
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