Mesenchymal-epithelial tissue interactions are important for development of various organs, and in many cases, soluble signaling molecules may be involved in this interaction. Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) is a mesenchyme-derived factor which has mitogenic, motogenic and morphogenic activities on various types of epithelial cells and is considered to be a possible mediator of epithelial-mesenchymal interaction during organogenesis and organ regeneration. In this study, we examined the role of HGF during lung development. In situ hybridization analysis showed HGF and the c-met/HGF receptor gene to be respectively expressed in mesenchyme and epithelium in the developing lung. In organ cultures, exogenously added HGF apparently stimulated branching morphogenesis of the fetal lung. In contrast, HGF translation arrest or neutralization assays resulted in clear inhibition of epithelial branching. These results suggest that HGF is a putative candidate for a mesenchyme-derived morphogen regulating lung organogenesis. We also found that HGF is involved in epithelial branching, in collaboration with fibroblast growth factor (FGF) family molecule(s). In mesenchyme-free culture, HGF alone did not induce epithelial morphogenesis, however, addition of both HGF and acidic FGF (aFGF) or keratinocyte growth factor (KGF), ligands for the KGF receptor, induced epithelial branching more extensively than that was observed in explants treated with aFGF or KGF alone. In addition, the simultaneous inhibition of HGF- and FGF-mediated signaling using neutralizing antibody and antisense oligo-DNA resulted in drastic impairment of epithelial growth and branching. Possible interactions between HGF and FGFs or other growth factors in lung development is given consideration.

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