Nerve growth factor (NGF) is necessary for the development of sympathetic and some sensory neurons. Milk may be a source of NGF for suckling young, but sites of intestinal absorption of the protein have not been identified. To determine whether NGF is transported across the absorptive epithelium of suckling rat ileum, we assessed binding, uptake, and transport of 125I-NGF by light microscopy and EM autoradiography. Blood and tissue extracts were analyzed by biochemical and immunological methods to determine whether NGF was taken up structurally intact. NGF binding sites were identified on microvilli and apical invaginations of ileal absorptive cells in vitro. Injected into ileal loops in vivo, NGF radioactivity retained by fixation was evident after 20 min in apical regions of absorptive cells, in endocytic tubules (which mediate the uptake of membrane-bound ligands), in vesicles (which mediate nonspecific endocytosis), and in the supranuclear lysosomal vacuole. At 1 and 2 h, radiolabel in these compartments increased and silver grains were evident at the basal cell surface, and in cells, matrix, and vessels of the lamina propria. In blood and liver, radiolabeled molecules that were immunologically and electrophoretically indistinguishable from NGF and that co-eluted with NGF on gel filtration columns were detected, confirming that some NGF was transported across the epithelium structurally intact. Thus, absorptive cells of suckling rat ileum can take up NGF by both receptor-mediated and nonspecific endocytosis, and direct NGF either to the lysosome for degradation, or into a transepithelial transport pathway.

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