Molecular Properties and Involvement of Heparanase in Cancer Progression and Mammary Gland Morphogenesis

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Tumor spread involves degradation of various components of the extracellular matrix and blood vessel wall. Among these is heparan sulfate proteoglycan, which plays a key role in the self-assembly, insolubility and barrier properties of basement membranes and extracellular matrices. Expression of an endoglycosidase (heparanase) which degrades heparan sulfate correlates with the metastatic potential of tumor cells, and treatment with heparanase inhibitors markedly reduces the incidence of metastasis in experimental animals. Heparin-binding angiogenic proteins are stored as a complex with heparan sulfate in the microenvironment of tumors. These proteins are released and can induce new capillary growth when heparan sulfate is degraded by heparanase. Here, we describe the molecular properties, expression and involvement in tumor progression of a human heparanase. The enzyme is synthesized as a latent ∼65 kDa protein that is processed at the N-terminus into a highly active ∼50 kDa form. The heparanase mRNA and protein are preferentially expressed in metastatic human cell lines and in tumor biopsy specimens, including breast carcinoma. Overexpression of the heparanase cDNA in low-metastatic tumor cells conferred a high metastatic potential in experimental animals, resulting in an increased rate of mortality. The heparanase enzyme also released ECM-resident bFGF in vitro, and its overexpression elicited an angiogenic response in vivo. Heparanase may thus facilitate both tumor cell invasion and neovascularization, two critical steps in tumor progression. Mammary glands of transgenic mice overexpressing the heparanase enzyme exhibit precocious branching of ducts and alveolar development, suggesting that the enzyme promotes normal morphogenesis and possibly pre-malignant changes in the mammary gland.

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