Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) was originally isolated as a mitogen for adult hepatocytes, but this cytokine is now regarded as a multi-functional factor. In the present study, we show that the mouse liver in the middle and/or late stage of the fetal life expresses both HGF and c-met (its receptor) messages. HGF and c-met mRNA are coexpressed not only in the adherent layers of fetal liver long-term cultures (FL-LTCs) and adult bone marrow long-term cultures (BM-LTCs), but also in the stromal cell lines MS-5 and PA-6. Addition of human HGF (2 and 20 ng/mL) to the LTCs enhances (1) nonadherent cell counts (ninefold in FL-LTCs and sixfold in BM-LTCs), (2) nonadherent colony-forming unit-in culture (CFU-C) counts (eightfold in FL-LTCs and fivefold in BM-LTC), and (3) cobblestone colony counts. However, HGF slightly inhibits the proliferation of stromal cells. No direct effect of HGF on freshly isolated BM and/or FL cells is found in the CFU-C assay. However, an approximately 1.5-fold synergistic increase in CFU-C counts is noted when the BM or FL cells are cocultured with HGF in the presence of interleukin-3. These findings strongly suggest that HGF plays a crucial role as a hematopoietic regulator in the proliferation and differentiation of hematopoietic progenitors.

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