Various beta 1 integrins (VLA-2, VLA-3, VLA-4) have been suggested to bind directly to themselves or to each other, thus mediating cell-cell adhesion. Here we expressed the human alpha 2 and alpha 3 subunits in three different cell lines (human erythroleukemia K562, human rhabdomyosarcoma RD and Chinese hamster ovary CHO cells). Although cell surface alpha 2 beta 1 and alpha 3 beta 1 in the transfectants mediated adhesion to matrix ligands (collagen or laminin 5, respectively), in no case did we observe enhanced cell-cell adhesion. In the presence of a range of different divalent cation concentrations, stimulatory anti-beta 1 antibodies or anti-alpha 3 antibodies, VLA-2 and VLA-3 still did not appear to interact directly, through either heterophilic (i.e. VLA-3/VLA-2) or homophilic (i.e. VLA-3/VLA-3) mechanisms, to mediate cell-cell adhesion. Furthermore, in some but not all alpha 3 transfectants we observed an unexpected decrease in cell-cell adhesion, suggesting a novel anti-adhesive function. This inhibitory effect was not observed for alpha 2 transfection nor when the alpha 3 cytoplasmic tail was exchanged with that of another integrin alpha subunit. Finally, no evidence for VLA-4/VLA-4 mediated cell-cell adhesion was observed using alpha 4-transfected K562 and CHO cells. In conclusion, using many different combinations of cell lines, we found that cell-cell adhesion mediated by direct integrin/integrin interaction is not a widespread phenomenon, and is not observable in standard cell-cell adhesion assays. Furthermore, in some cell combinations, alpha 3 expression may actually cause diminished cell-cell adhesion.

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