We have defined a signal responsible for the morphological differentiation of human umbilical vein and human dermal microvascular endothelial cells in vitro. We find that human umbilical vein endothelial cells deprived of growth factors undergo morphological differentiation with tube formation after 6-12 wk, and that human dermal microvascular endothelial cells differentiate after 1 wk of growth factor deprivation. Here, we report that morphological differentiation of both types of endothelial cells is markedly accelerated by culture on a reconstituted gel composed of basement membrane proteins. Under these conditions, tube formation begins in 1-2 h and is complete by 24 h. The tubes are maintained for greater than 2 wk. Little or no proliferation occurs under these conditions, although the cells, when trypsinized and replated on fibronectin-coated tissue culture dishes, resume division. Ultrastructurally, the tubes possess a lumen surrounded by endothelial cells attached to one another by junctional complexes. The cells possess Weibel-Palade bodies and factor VIII-related antigens, and take up acetylated low density lipoproteins. Tubule formation does not occur on tissue culture plastic coated with laminin or collagen IV, either alone or in combination, or on an agarose or a collagen I gel. However, endothelial cells cultured on a collagen I gel supplemented with laminin form tubules, while supplementation with collagen IV induces a lesser degree of tubule formation. Preincubation of endothelial cells with antibodies to laminin prevented tubule formation while antibodies to collagen IV were less inhibitory. Preincubation of endothelial cells with synthetic peptides derived from the laminin B1 chain that bind to the laminin cell surface receptor or incorporation of these peptides into the gel matrix blocked tubule formation, whereas control peptides did not. These observations indicate that endothelial cells can rapidly differentiate on a basement membrane-like matrix and that laminin is the principal factor in inducing this change.

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