In vivo studies have suggested that the aorta from an old animal responds to injury with an exaggerated proliferation of smooth muscle cells (SMCs) compared with the response of this aorta from a young animal. In this study we compared proliferation of SMCs derived from uninjured old (less than 19 mo) and young (3-4 mo) rat aortas. Old SMCs grew more rapidly than young SMCs in the presence of medium containing competence factors (10% FCS or platelet-derived growth factor [PDGF]) as well as in their absence (2% PDS or serum-free media) as determined both by a short-term thymidine incorporation assay and by cell counts. Lysates prepared from old SMCs that had been grown in the absence of serum or PDGF stimulated proliferation of target cells more than lysates prepared from young SMCs; the effect was inversely related to cell density of the SMCs. This stimulatory effect of lysates was completely blocked by antibody to PDGF. After the growth-promoting activity of lysates was eliminated by anti-PDGF, growth-inhibiting activity was revealed. Lysates prepared from old SMCs had significantly less capacity to inhibit target cell growth. In the presence of exogenous heparin both the serum- or PDGF-stimulated proliferation and serum-free proliferation of old SMCs were decreased to the level of proliferation of young SMCs. These results suggest that the balance between growth-promoting and growth-inhibiting factors is altered in SMCs from old rats. This may contribute to the increased proliferative capacity of these cells in culture and may facilitate the development of atherosclerosis with age.

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