When EBV-transformed human B cells are removed from conventional cell cultures, washed, and seeded at a low cell density in serum-free medium, their growth potential is greatly diminished. Fresh serum restores the growth of low density B cell cultures. We have traced this restorative effect to an essential factor present in the lipid fraction of serum and have identified it as all-trans retinol. The identification is based on the close similarities of the factor isolated from serum with authentic all-trans retinol as revealed by mass spectrometry, HPLC chromatography, and the ability to stimulate the growth of lymphoblastoid cells in the bioassay. Retinol is active at concentrations equal to its concentration in serum. Retinol is also a requirement for growth in suspension cultures at cell densities of 3 x 10(5)/ml. Cells removed at any time from such exponentially growing cultures and transferred to retinol-free medium cease to grow and consequently die, whereas in the continued presence of retinol, cell growth is unabated. All-trans retinal can substitute for retinol, but retinoic acid fails to stimulate the growth of lymphoblastoid cells at physiological concentrations. Normal human B lymphocytes also require retinol as a costimulator of proliferation after activation by anti-mu antibody or Staphylococcus aureus (Cowan strain) bacteria. In serum, retinol is bound to retinol-binding protein, which in turn forms a complex with prealbumin. Accordingly, we find that B cells respond to retinol bound to its physiological serum carrier, retinol-binding protein. In conclusion, human B cells are critically dependent for optimal growth in cell culture on an external supply of retinol.

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