We have investigated the question of erythropoietin (Epo) hypersensitivity versus Epo independence as the basis for the endogenous erythroid bursts (EEBs) that develop in cultures without added Epo from hematopoietic cells of polycythemia vera (PV) patients. Using an improved serum-free (SF) medium containing interleukin (IL)-3, but no insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), and devoid of contaminants that influence erythropoiesis, we compared circulating normal and PV early erythroid progenitors (BFU-E) with respect to their responses in vitro to recombinant human (rHu) Epo. Cultures were seeded with Ficoll- Hypaque density-separated peripheral blood (PB) mononuclear cells (MNCs), and erythroid bursts, together with their component colonies of > or = 50 cells, were scored in situ at 13 to 16 days of culture. The Epo dose-response curve of BFU-E from PV patients was found to be statistically indistinguishable from that of normal subjects. This observation provides compelling evidence against the Epo- hypersensitivity hypothesis. In the complete SF medium minus Epo, the sensitivity of BFU-E to IGF-1 was much greater in PV than in normals, the dose-response curve being shifted to the left by at least 2 orders of magnitude. These data show that the erythroid progenitor cell response in PV is hypersensitive to IGF-1, and independent of Epo. The data also emphasize the importance of truly SF medium conditions for assessment of progenitor cell sensitivities to recombinant growth factors. Depletion of adherent cells totally prevented erythroid burst formation by normal circulating progenitors, but did not prevent the hypersensitive response to IGF-1 of such cells from PV patients. Hence, again unlike its normal counterpart, the progenitor cell response in PV appears to be independent of adherent cell control.

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