Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) is a paracrine inducer of morphogenesis and invasive growth in epithelial and endothelial cells. HGF is secreted by mesenchymal cells as an inactive precursor (pro-HGF). The crucial step for HGF activation is the extracellular hydrolysis of the Arg494-Val495 bond, which converts pro-HGF into alpha beta-HGF, the high-affinity ligand for the Met receptor. We previously reported that the urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA) activates pro-HGF in vitro. We now show that this is a stoichiometric reaction, and provide evidence for its occurrence in tissue culture. Activation involves the formation of a stable complex between pro-HGF and uPA. This complex was isolated from the in vitro reaction of pure uPA with recombinant pro-HGF, as well as from the membrane of target cells, after sequential addition of uPA and pro-HGF. On the cell membrane, the uPA-HGF complex was bound to the Met receptor. Monocytic cell lines, and primary monocytes after adhesion, activated efficiently pro-HGF both on their surface and in the culture medium. This activation was inhibited by anti-catalytic anti-uPA antibodies, and occurred by a stoichiometric reaction. The stoichiometry of the activation reaction suggests that the biological effects of HGF can be titrated in vivo by the level of uPA activity. Adequate amounts of uPA can be locally provided by the macrophages, which would condition the tissue microenvironment by rendering HGF bioavailable to its target cells.
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