Angiogenesis is essential for tumour growth and metastasis. It is controlled by angiogenic factors, one of the most important being vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-A. Although its role has been demonstrated in many tumour types including colorectal carcinoma (CRC), the importance of the newer family members in adenoma, invasive tumour growth, and progression to a metastatic phenotype has been poorly characterized in CRC. The aim of this study was to determine the role and timing of the VEGF angiogenic switch during CRC progression. We measured the gene expression of VEGF ligands (VEGF-A, VEGF-B, VEGF-C, and VEGF-D) and their receptors (VEGFR-1, VEGFR-2, and VEGFR-3), in normal colorectal tissues (n = 20), adenomas (n = 10), and in CRC (n = 71) representing different Duke's stages using ribonuclease protection assay, semi-quantitative relative reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, together with the pattern of their expression by immunohistochemistry. VEGF-A mRNA was the most abundant in colorectal tissue, followed by VEGF-B, VEGF-C, and VEGF-D. VEGF-A and VEGF-B mRNAs were significantly more abundant in adenomas (p = 0.0003 and p = 0.04 respectively) compared with normal tissues, while VEGF-A and VEGF-C were significantly increased in carcinomas compared with normal tissues (p = 0.0006 and p = 0.0009 respectively). A significantly greater amount of VEGF-C mRNA was present in carcinomas compared with adenomas (p = 0.03), whereas there was a significant reduction of VEGF-B in carcinomas compared with adenomas (p = 0.0002). VEGF-D mRNA was significantly more abundant in normal tissues than in adenomas (p = 0.0001) and carcinomas (p < 0.0001). In normal tissues distant from the primary tumour, there was a significantly greater amount of VEGF-A and VEGF-D mRNA in patients with Duke's B and Duke's C respectively, compared with Duke's A stage tumours (p = 0.04 and p = 0.01 respectively). Immunohistochemistry showed low basal levels of all ligands in histologically normal tissues and their expression in the epithelium of tumours reflected the levels of mRNA expression identified. VEGF-A and VEGF-C mRNA levels correlated significantly with tumour grade (p = 0.01 and p = 0.01 respectively) and tumour size (p = 0.001 and p = 0.01 respectively), but not with patient age, sex, presence of infiltrative margin, lymphocytic response, vascular invasion, Duke's stage, or lymph node involvement (p > 0.05). VEGF-B mRNA correlated with an infiltrative margin (p = 0.04) but no other clinicopathological variable, and expression of VEGF-D demonstrated no association with any parameter examined. VEGFR-1 was significantly correlated with tumour grade (p = 0.02), Duke's stage (p < 0.001), and lymph node involvement (p = 0.004), VEGFR-2 with lymph node involvement (p = 0.02), and VEGFR-3 did not correlate with any of the clinicopathological variables tested. These results suggest that VEGF-A and VEGF-B play a role early in tumour development at the stage of adenoma formation and that VEGF-C plays a role in advanced disease when there is more likelihood of metastatic spread. The finding of increased levels of VEGF-A and VEGF-D expression in normal tissues collected from a site distant from the primary tumour indicates changes in the surrounding tumour environment that may enhance the subsequent spread of tumour cells.
Copyright 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.