Rationale: Lymphatic vessels in the respiratory tract normally mature into a functional network during the neonatal period, but under some pathological conditions they can grow as enlarged, dilated sacs that result in the potentially lethal condition of pulmonary lymphangiectasia.
Objective: We sought to determine whether overexpression of the lymphangiogenic growth factor (vascular endothelial growth factor-C [VEGF-C]) can promote lymphatic growth and maturation in the respiratory tract. Unexpectedly, perinatal overexpression of VEGF-C in the respiratory epithelium led to a condition resembling human pulmonary lymphangiectasia, a life-threatening disorder of the newborn characterized by respiratory distress and the presence of widely dilated lymphatics.
Methods and results: Administration of doxycycline to Clara cell secretory protein-reverse tetracycline-controlled transactivator/tetracycline operator-VEGF-C double-transgenic mice during a critical period from embryonic day 15.5 to postnatal day 14 was accompanied by respiratory distress, chylothorax, pulmonary lymphangiectasia, and high mortality. Enlarged sac-like lymphatics were abundant near major airways, pulmonary vessels, and visceral pleura. Side-by-side comparison revealed morphological features similar to pulmonary lymphangiectasia in humans. The condition was milder in mice given doxycycline after age postnatal day 14 and did not develop after postnatal day 35. Mechanistic studies revealed that VEGF recptor (VEGFR)-3 alone drove lymphatic growth in adult mice, but both VEGFR-2 and VEGFR-3 were required for the development of lymphangiectasia in neonates. VEGFR-2/VEGFR-3 heterodimers were more abundant in the dilated lymphatics, consistent with the involvement of both receptors. Despite the dependence of lymphangiectasia on VEGFR-2 and VEGFR-3, the condition was not reversed by blocking both receptors together or by withdrawing VEGF-C.
Conclusions: The findings indicate that VEGF-C overexpression can induce pulmonary lymphangiectasia during a critical period in perinatal development.
Keywords: VEGFR-2; VEGFR-3; chylothorax; lung; lymphangiogenesis; lymphangiomatosis, pulmonary; lymphatic vessels; pulmonary edema.