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G Ricci, A Catizone and M Galdieri

The hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) is a pleiotropic cytokine able to regulate different cellular functions. HGF action is mediated by its receptor, c-met, a glycoprotein with tyrosine kinase activity. We previously demonstrated that c-met is expressed in the newly formed seminiferous cords of the mice embryonic testes and that HGF acts as a morphogenetic factor. In this paper, we report that at 15.5 days post-coitum (dpc) c-met is expressed in the testicular cords, whereas at 18.5 dpc c-met expression is almost exclusively localized in the interstitial tissue of the testis in particular in the fetal Leydig cells. In addition, we demonstrate that HGF gene is expressed during the fetal period of testis development, heavily detectable in the interstitial compartment of 18.5 dpc testes. Interestingly, HGF is not expressed in the Leydig cells that, as above reported, express the HGF receptor. Looking for the functional role of HGF on Leydig cells, we evaluated the amount of testosterone secreted by testes isolated from 18.5 dpc embryos and cultured in the presence of HGF. The results of the in vitro organ culture show that, at this age, HGF increases the amount of testosterone secreted in the culture medium. On the contrary, HGF does not modulate the amount of testosterone secreted by testes isolated from 15.5 dpc embryos. In conclusion, we report that HGF is produced in the interstitial compartment of the developing testis but not by the Leydig cells. Conversely, the HGF receptor c-met is expressed in the Leydig cells and HGF modulates Leydig cell function during the late period of prenatal development.

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A Catizone, G Ricci, J Del Bravo and M Galdieri

The hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) is a pleiotropic cytokine that influences mitogenesis, motility and differentiation of many different cell types by its tyrosine kinase receptor c-Met. We previously demonstrated that the c-Met/HGF system is present and functionally active during postnatal testis development. We found also that spermatozoa express c-Met and that HGF has a positive effect on the maintenance of sperm motility. In the present paper, we extend our study on the germ cells at different stages of differentiation during the postnatal development of the testis. We demonstrate that c-met is present in rat spermatogonia, pachytene spermatocytes and round spermatids and that HGF significantly increases spermatogonial proliferation in 8- to 10-day-old pre-pubertal rats. At this age HGF does not affect Sertoli cells and peritubular myoid cells proliferation. In addition, we studied the effect of the factor on germ cell apoptosis and we show that HGF prevents the germ cell apoptotic process. We also studied the effect of HGF on 18- to 20-day-old and 28- to 30-day-old rat testes. At these ages also the factor significantly increases germ cell duplication and decreases the number of apoptotic cells. However, the effect on programmed cell death is higher in the 8- to 10-day-old rats and declines in the older animals.

In conclusion, we report that rat germ cells (spermatogonia, pachytene spermatocytes and round spermatids) express c-met and that HGF modulates germ cell proliferating activity and apoptosis in vitro. These data indicate that the c-Met/HGF system is involved in male germ cell homeostasis and, consequently, has a role in male fertility.