Heregulins or Neu Differentiation Factors and the Interactions between Peritubular Myoid Cells and Sertoli Cells*

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Interactions between (mesenchymal) peritubular myoid cells and (epithelial) Sertoli cells play an important role in the control of Sertoli cell function and spermatogenesis. The factors involved, however, have only partially been identified. Heregulins or neu differentiation factors (NDFs) mediate mesenchymal-epithelial interactions in a variety of tissues, but their role in the testis has not been investigated. Here we demonstrate that recombinant human heregulin-α (Her-α) and Her-β stimulate transferrin and androgen-binding protein production by cultured rat Sertoli cells up to 2.5-fold. These effects are more pronounced than those of previously identified growth factors active in this assay, such as insulin-like growth factor I and basic fibroblast growth factor. Combination with these factors results in additive effects and in marked morphological changes in the Sertoli cell cultures, including formation of tubule-like structures. Stimulation of androgen-binding protein secretion is paralleled by increased levels of the corresponding messenger RNA. This parallelism was less consistent for transferrin. Semiquantitative RT-PCR indicates that the expression of NDF-α and NDF-β is more pronounced in peritubular cells than in Leydig or Sertoli cells. Conversely, the main receptors for heregulins/NDFs, HER-3 and HER-4, are predominantly expressed in Sertoli cells. A displacement assay confirms the presence of high-affinity binding sites for [125I]Her-β on intact Sertoli cells and reveals parallel displacement curves for Her-β, Her-α, and concentrated peritubular cell-conditioned medium (PTCM; estimated ED50 values: 1 ng/ml, 50 ng/ml, and 130 μg protein/ml, respectively), indicating that peritubular cells secrete one or more factors able to compete for heregulin receptors. It is concluded that heregulins/NDFs may play a role in mesenchymal-epithelial interactions in the testis. Estimates of the concentrations of heregulins in PTCM, however, make it unlikely that they contribute significantly to the effects observed with low concentrations of PTCM and ascribed to the putative mediator PModS (peritubular factor that modulates Sertoli cell function). Further investigations will be required to define the exact role of heregulins in the testis.

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