Branching morphogenesis is a multi-step process that controls the formation of polarised tubules starting from hollow cysts. Its execution entails a series of rate-limiting events which include reversible disruption of cell polarity, dismantling of intercellular contacts, acquisition of a motile phenotype, stimulation of cell proliferation, and final re-establishment of cell polarity for creation of the definitive structures. Branching morphogenesis takes place physiologically during development, accounting for the establishment of organs endowed with a ramified architecture such as glands, the respiratory tract and the vasculartree. In cancer, aberrant implementation of branching morphogenesis leads to deregulated proliferation, protection from apoptosis and enhanced migratory/invasive properties, which together exacerbate the aggressive features of neoplastic cells. Under both physiological and pathological conditions, branching morphogenesis is mainly accomplished by a family of growth factors known as scatter factors. In this review, we will summarise the current knowledge on the biological and functional roles of scatter factors during branching morphogenesis, with a special emphasis on the phenotypic (structural and histological) consequences of scatter factor activity in different tissues.
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