Because the response of human endothelial cells to growth factors and conditioning agents has broad implications for our understanding of wound healing angiogenesis, and human atherogenesis, we have investigated the responses of these cells to the fibroblast (FGF) and epidermal growth factors (EGF), as well as to the protease thrombin, which has been previously shown to potentiate the growth response of other cell types of FGF and EGF. Because the vascular endothelial cells that form the inner lining of blood vessels may be expected to be exposed to high thrombin concentrations after trauma or in pathological states associated with thrombosis, they are of particular interest with respect to the physiological role of this protease in potentiating cell proliferation. Our results indicate that human vascular endothelial cells respond poorly to either FGF or thrombin alone. In contrast, when cells are maintained in the presence of thrombin, their proliferative response to FGF is greatly increased even in cultures seeded at a density as low as 3 cells/mm2. Human vascular endothelial cells also respond to EGF and thrombin, although their rate of proliferation is much slower than when maintained with FGF and thrombin. In contrast, bovine vascular endothelial cells derived from vascular territories as diverse as the bovine heart, aortic arch, and umbilical vein respond maximally to FGF alone and neither respond to nor bind EGF. Furthermore, the response of bovine vascular endothelial cells to FGF was not potentiated by thrombin, indicating that the set of factors controlling the proliferation of vascular endothelial cells could be species-dependent. The requirement of cultured human vascular endothelial cells for thrombin could explain why the human cells, in contrast to bovine endothelial cells, are so difficult to maintain in tissue culture. Our results demonstrate that by using FGF and thrombin one can develop cultures of human vascular endothelial cells capable of being passage repeatedly while maintaining a high mitotic index. The stock cultures used for these studies have been passed weekly with a split ratio of 1 to 10 and are currently in their 30th passage. These cultures are indistinguishable from earlier passages when examined for the presence of Weibel-Palade bodies or Factor VIII antigen. We conclude that the use of FGF and thrombin can prevent the precocious senescence observed in most human endothelial cells cultures previously described.

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