Background: Despite significant differences in ligand binding between the two known isoforms of the human membrane folate receptor (FR), designated herein as FR-beta (placenta) and FR-alpha (placenta, KB cells), little is known about their tissue specificities, and there is no report on the relative expression of FR-beta in any tissue other than in placenta.
Methods: The mRNA for each FR isoform in a wide variety of normal fetal and adult tissue explants, primary normal cell cultures, malignant tumor explants, and established tumor cell lines was estimated by a polymerase chain reaction assay. Total receptor levels were estimated by a [3H] folic acid binding assay.
Results: Both the FR isoforms were expressed in fetal as well as adult tissues. Normal tissues generally expressed low to moderate amounts of FR-beta. FR-alpha alone was expressed in normal epithelial cells and was frequently strikingly elevated in a variety of carcinomas, with the exception of squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. In contrast, a variety of malignant tissues of nonepithelial origin generally expressed elevated levels of FR-beta alone. Established tumor cell lines expressed FR-alpha virtually alone and did not reflect FR expression patterns in vivo. KB cells and JEG-3 cells grown at low folate concentrations further up-regulated FR-alpha but not FR-beta.
Conclusions: Although FR-beta is the more common isoform, FR-alpha and FR-beta are differentially regulated in normal tissues, carcinomas, nonepithelial malignancies, and immortalized cells or in response to changes in extracellular folate concentrations. The tissue specificity of FR isoforms and their elevation in malignant tissues may be a significant factor in FR-mediated folate uptake, in tissue responsiveness to promising novel antifolates, and in FR-related immunodiagnosis/immunotherapy.