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Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a critical regulator of angiogenesis that stimulates proliferation, migration, and proteolytic activity of endothelial cells. Although the mitogenic activity of VEGF is endothelial cell specific, recent reports indicate VEGF is able to stimulate chemotaxis and tissue factor production in monocytes. VEGF-stimulated activity in monocytes is mediated by the VEGF receptor flt-1. The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effects of VEGF on another major cell type in the vascular wall, namely, the vascular smooth muscle cell (SMC). Using cultured cells, we showed that VEGF has a minimal mitogenic effect on SMCs, which is in accordance with published data. However, VEGF treatment significantly enhanced production of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-1, -3, and -9 by human SMCs. The upregulation of MMP-1 and MMP-9 was pronounced, and the stimulation for MMP-3 was less prominent. Stimulation could be demonstrated at both protein and mRNA levels, as reflected by ELISA, zymography, and Northern blot analysis. To explore the signal transduction pathway for the effect of VEGF on SMCs, we studied the expression of 2 high-affinity VEGF receptors, the kinase insert domain-containing receptor (KDR) and flt-1, in human SMCs. Both reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction and immunoblotting revealed the expression of flt-1. Immunoprecipitation followed by immunoblotting illustrated phosphorylation of the flt-1 receptor after VEGF treatment. Similar methodology failed to detect expression of KDR in human SMCs. These data suggest the role of flt-1 in mediating VEGF-stimulated MMP expression of SMCs. The physiological relevance of MMP upregulation was studied by examining VEGF-stimulated SMC migration through 2 synthetic extracellular matrix barriers, Matrigel and Vitrogen. Our results indicate that VEGF treatment accelerated SMC migration through both barriers, and that this response was blocked by MMP inhibition in Matrigel, which supports a permissive role of MMP in SMC migration. These data are the first to show a direct effect of VEGF on SMCs. SMC-derived MMPs may be an additional source of proteases to digest vascular basement membrane, which is a crucial step in the initial stage of angiogenesis. The MMPs may also contribute to SMC migration in angiogenesis and atherogenesis. (Circ Res. 1998;83:832-840.)

(C) 1998 American Heart Association, Inc.