The effect of nerve growth factor (NGF) on proliferation/differentiation of mast cells was investigated in vitro. Although NGF alone neither supported colony formation of bone marrow-derived cultured mast cells (BMCMC) nor induced development of mast cell colonies from nonadherent bone marrow cells (NBMC), addition of NGF to the suboptimal dose of interleukin 3 (IL-3) significantly increased the numbers of mast cell colonies produced by BMCMC or NBMC in methylcellulose. When stimulated by IL-3 alone, cells in mast cell colonies were not stained by berberine sulfate, a fluorescent dye. In contrast, mast cells developing in methylcellulose cultures obtaining both IL-3 and NGF were stained by berberine sulfate. The fluorescence was abolished by the treatment of heparinase but not of chondroitinase ABC, suggesting that mast cells stimulated by IL-3 and NGF produced and stored heparin proteoglycan. The histamine content of BMCMC maintained by IL-3 was also increased by addition of NGF. Since BMCMC showed mucosal mast cell-like phenotype, NGF appeared to induce the phenotypic change to connective tissue-type mast cells (CTMC). In the culture containing BMCMC, 3T3 fibroblasts, and IL-3, the phenotypic change of BMCMC to CTMC was observed as well. Since NGF was detected in this coculture and since addition of anti-NGF monoclonal antibody suppressed the phenotypic change, NGF produced by fibroblasts appeared to induce the phenotypic change. Neither BMCMC alone nor IL-3 alone increased the concentration of NGF. Therefore, there is a possibility that BMCMC stimulated by IL-3 may induce the production and/or release of NGF by fibroblasts.

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