The intact sciatic nerve contains levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) that are comparable to those of densely innervated peripheral target tissues of NGF-responsive (sympathetic and sensory) neurons. There, the high NGF levels are reflected by correspondingly high mRNANGF levels. In the intact sciatic nerve, mRNANGF levels were very low, thus indicating that the contribution of locally synthesized NGF by nonneuronal cells is small. However, after transection an increase of up to 15-fold in mRNANGF was measured in 4-mm segments collected both proximally and distally to the transection site. Distally to the transection site, augmented mRNANGF levels occurred in all three 4-mm segments from 6 h to 2 wk after transection, the longest time period investigated. The augmented local NGF synthesis after transection was accompanied by a reexpression of NGF receptors by Schwann cells (NGF receptors normally disappear shortly after birth). Proximal to the transection site, the augmented NGF synthesis was restricted to the very end of the nerve stump that acts as a "substitute target organ" for the regenerating NGF-responsive nerve fibers. While the mRNANGF levels in the nerve stump correspond to those of a densely innervated peripheral organ, the volume is too small to fully replace the lacking supply from the periphery. This is reflected by the fact that in the more proximal part of the transected sciatic nerve, where mRNANGF remained unchanged, the NGF levels reached only 40% of control values. In situ hybridization experiments demonstrated that after transection all nonneuronal cells express mRNANGF and not only those ensheathing the nerve fibers of NGF-responsive neurons.
We studied the synthesis and release of nerve growth factor (NGF) in cultured rat iris with a two-site enzyme immunoassay by measuring the time course of NGF levels remaining in the iris and relased into the medium up to 72 h. For up to 3 h, the NGF levels in the iris did not change significantly. After that, they increased to a maximal level of 350 +/- 30 pg NGF/iris at 19 h, which is 200 times higher than the in vivo content. Between 20 and 72 h in culture, the NGF level decreased to 130 +/- 10 pg NGF/iris, whereas general protein synthesis did not change during that time period. Maximal rate of NGF production (203 pg NGF/h/iris) was seen between 9 and 12 h in culture. In the medium, NGF levels were first detectable after 6 h. Levels then increased with a time course similar to that seen within the iris, reaching a maximal level of 1,180 +/- 180 pg after 19 h in vitro, and then did not significantly change for up to 48 h. The NGF production of the densely sympathetically innervated dilator was three times higher than that of the predominantly cholinergically innervated sphincter. The NGF production was blocked by inhibitors of messenger RNA synthesis (actinomycin D) and of polyadenylation (9-beta-D-arabinofuranosyladenine) as well as by inhibitors of translation (cycloheximide). Monensin, which interferes with the transport of proteins through the Golgi apparatus, decreased NGF levels to 8-12% of controls in the medium, suggesting that the Golgi apparatus is involved in the intracellular processing of NGF.