We have previously demonstrated that chemically modified thrombin preparations induce endothelial cell (EC) adhesion, spreading and cytoskeletal reorganization via an Arg-Gly-Asp (RGD) sequence and the alpha v beta 3 integrin. Native thrombin, however, did not exhibit adhesive properties, consistent with crystal structure analysis, showing that Gly-Asp residues of the RGD epitope are buried within the molecule. We have now identified a possible physiological mean of converting thrombin to an adhesive protein. Plasmin, the major end product of the fibrinolytic system, converted thrombin to an adhesive protein for EC in a time and dose-dependent manner. EC adhesion and spreading was also induced by a low molecular weight (approximately 3,000 D) cleavage fragment generated upon incubation of thrombin with plasmin. Cell adhesion mediated by this fragment was completely inhibited by the synthetic peptide GRGDSP. Conversion of thrombin to an adhesive molecule was significantly enhanced in the presence of heparin or heparan sulfate, while other glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) (e.g., dermatan sulfate, keratan sulfate, chondroitin sulfate) had no effect. The role of cell surface heparan sulfate in thrombin conversion to EC adhesive protein was investigated using CHO cell mutants defective in various aspects of GAG synthesis. Incubation of both thrombin and a suboptimal amount of plasmin on the surface of formaldehyde fixed wild-type CHO-KI cells resulted in an efficient conversion of thrombin to an adhesive molecule, as indicated by subsequent induction of EC attachment. In contrast, there was no effect to incubation of thrombin and plasmin with fixed CHO mutant cells lacking both heparan sulfate and chondroitin sulfate, or with cells expressing no heparan sulfate and a three-fold increase in chondroitin sulfate. A similar gain of adhesive properties was obtained upon incubation of thrombin and plasmin in contact with native, but not heparinase-treated extracellular matrix (ECM) produced by cultured ECs. It appears that cell surface and ECM-associated heparan sulfate modulate thrombin adhesive properties through its heparin binding site in a manner that enables suboptimal amounts of plasmin to expose the RGD domain. Our results demonstrate, for the first time, a significant modulation of thrombin molecule by heparin, resulting in its conversion to a potent adhesive protein for ECs. This conversion is most effective in contact with cell surfaces, basement membranes and ECM.

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