Follicle development is the result of a balanced ratio between cell proliferation and cell death. Previous studies demonstrated differential mitotic responses to insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I and epidermal growth factor (EGF) of cumulus cells (CC) and mural granulosa cells (MGC). Because cell-to-cell contact seems to modulate the occurrence of programmed cell death, the present experiments investigated the role of cell association in mediating apoptosis and the mitogenic responses to these growth factors of CC and MGC. Cumulus cells were cultured either as intact cumulus-oocyte complexes (COC) or after dissociation with EGTA sucrose, in the presence of 50 ng/ml IGF-I, 5 ng/ml EGF, or both. Mural granulosa cells from the same follicles were similarly cultured either as cell aggregates or as dissociated cells. Synthesis of DNA was assessed by measurement of [3H]thymidine incorporation during the last 6 h of a 24-h culture in TCM199. Percentages of cells undergoing apoptosis were determined immunohistochemically in intact COC and GC aggregates, before and after dissociation as well as after the culture period. Epidermal growth factor and IGF-I stimulated DNA synthesis in both cell types; however, EGF inhibited the action of IGF-I in intact COC but not in MGC. Compared to nondissociated cells, dissociation resulted in a reduction of the mitogenic response of CC to both growth factors and of MGC to EGF. Unlike the response of intact COC to combined treatment with the two growth factors, dissociated CC displayed additive responses to the two growth factors in combination. Addition of denuded oocytes to cultures of dissociated CC enhanced both basal and growth factor-stimulated DNA synthesis but did not restore the inhibitory effect of EGF on the IGF-I response characteristic of intact COC. A significant proportion of intact MGC aggregates underwent apoptosis after 24 h of culture, while no increase of apoptotic cells was observed in intact COC. A dramatic increase in the percentage of apoptotic cells was observed in both CC and MGC when cell-cell contact was interrupted, and EGF and IGF-I were able to partially prevent its occurrence. Taken together these data showed that CC and MGC exhibit qualitatively and quantitatively different responses to IGF-I when cultured in the presence of EGF both in terms of DNA synthesis and onset of apoptosis. Moreover, the disruption of cell-cell contact was a major factor reducing cell proliferation and inducing apoptosis among both subsets of GC.
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