Prolactin, growth hormone and placental lactogen are members of a family of polypeptide hormones which share structural similarities and biological activities. Numerous functions have been attributed to these hormones, among which stand out their recently discovered effects on angiogenesis, the process by which new blood vessels are formed from the pre-existing microvasculature. Prolactin, growth hormone and placental lactogen, along with two non-classical members of the family, proliferin and proliferin-related protein, can act both as circulating hormones and as paracrine/autocrine factors to either stimulate or inhibit various stages of the formation and remodeling of new blood vessels, including endothelial cell proliferation, migration, protease production and apoptosis. Such opposing actions can reside in similar but independent molecules, as is the case of proliferin and proliferin-related protein, which stimulate and inhibit angiogenesis respectively. The potential to exert opposing effects on angiogenesis can also reside within the same molecule as the parent protein can promote angiogenesis (i.e. prolactin, growth hormone and placental lactogen), but after proteolytic processing the resulting peptide fragment acquires anti-angiogenic properties (i.e. 16 kDa prolactin, 16 kDa growth hormone and 16 kDa placental lactogen). The unique properties of the peptide fragments versus the full-length molecules, the regulation of the protease responsible for specific protein cleavage, the selective expression of specific receptors and their associated signal transduction pathways are issues that are being investigated to further establish the precise contribution of these hormones to angiogenesis under both physiological and pathological situations. In this review article, we summarize the known and speculative issues underlying the effects of the prolactin, growth hormone and placental lactogen family of proteins on angiogenesis, and address important remaining enigmas in this field of research.
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