Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a secreted angiogenic mitogen whose target cell specificity appears to be restricted to vascular endothelial cells. Such factors are likely candidates for regulatory molecules involved in endothelial growth control. We have characterized the murine VEGF gene and have analysed its expression pattern in embryogenesis, particularly during brain angiogenesis. Analysis of cDNA clones predicted the existence of three molecular forms of VEGF which differ in size due to heterogeneity at the carboxy terminus of the protein. The predicted mature proteins consist of 120, 164 or 188 amino acid residues. Homodimers of the two lower molecular weight forms, but not of the higher molecular weight form, were secreted by COS cells transfected with the corresponding cDNAs and were equally potent in stimulating the growth of endothelial cells. During brain development, VEGF transcript levels were abundant in the ventricular neuroectoderm of embryonic and postnatal brain when endothelial cells proliferate rapidly but were reduced in the adult when endothelial cell proliferation has ceased. The temporal and spatial expression of VEGF is consistent with the hypothesis that VEGF is synthesized and released by the ventricular neuroectoderm and may induce the ingrowth of capillaries from the perineural vascular plexus. In addition to the transient expression during brain development, a persistent expression of VEGF was observed in epithelial cells adjacent to fenestrated endothelium, e.g. in choroid plexus and in kidney glomeruli. The data are consistent with a role of VEGF as a multifunctional regulator of endothelial cell growth and differentiation.

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