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BACKGROUND: Hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor (HGF/SF) is a pleiotropic cytokine with mitogenic, motogenic and morphogenic effects for a wide variety of cells. Previous studies have reported that the in vivo infusion in normal, untreated mice of recombinant HGF results in low levels of DNA synthesis and liver proliferation. In this study, we examined whether liver regeneration could be obtained by the in vivo injection of a recombinant adenoviral vector encoding human HGF (Ad.CMV.rhHGF) in normal, intact mice. MATERIALS AND METHODS: C57BL/6 mice were infused intravenously with doses increasing from 1 to 4 x 1011 particles of the recombinant human HGF (rhHGF) adenoviral vector or with a control virus encoding Escherichia coli beta-galactosidase (Ad.CMV.lacZ). At day 5, mice were sacrificed and evaluated for the presence of hepatocyte mitogenesis and liver regeneration (5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdU) assays and liver weight determination) and for the presence of liver damage (serum alanine amino-transferase (ALT) measurements and TUNEL assays). RESULTS: In vivo administration of rhHGF stimulated DNA synthesis of hepatocytes and liver weight in a dose-dependent fashion. The maximal effect was seen after the infusion of 3 x 1011 particles which resulted at day 5 in >130% increase in relative liver mass with little cytopathic effect. In contrast, administration of the lacZ adenoviral vector caused little hepatocyte replication, but induced high levels of serum ALT (approximately 3 times higher than the rhHGF vector) and significant apoptotic cell death. CONCLUSIONS: This study shows that a single injection of Ad.CMV.rhHGF alone is able to induce in vivo and in a very short period of time, robust DNA synthesis and liver proliferation in normal mice without liver injury or partial hepatectomy. This recombinant adenoviral vector has a lower toxicity than the control lacZ adenovirus. This suggests that HGF may have a protective effect against adenovirus-induced pathology.