Objective: Angiogenesis is an integral component of the vasculoproliferative phase of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Recently, a heparin-binding cytokine termed hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), or scatter factor (due to its ability to disperse cohesive epithelial colonies), was described. We conducted this study to investigate the hypothesis that this cytokine was present in the milieu of the inflamed joint, and that it contributed to the chemotaxis of endothelial cells in the synovial tissue.
Methods: We examined synovial fluid, synovial tissue, and peripheral blood from 91 patients with RA and other arthritides. We used 83 total samples in an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay to quantitate the HGF in synovial fluids and peripheral blood. To determine whether the HGF was biologically active, an epithelial scatter factor assay was performed. Immunohistochemical analysis was used to determine localization in synovial tissues. To define a function for synovial HGF, we preincubated rheumatoid synovial fluids with neutralizing anti-HGF and measured the ability of these synovial fluids to induce endothelial chemotaxis.
Results: Synovial fluid from patients with RA contained a mean +/- SEM HGF concentration of 2.0 +/- 0.3 ng/ml, while synovial fluid from patients with other arthritides (including inflammatory arthritis) contained 2.4 +/- 0.7 ng/ml HGF. Osteoarthritis (OA) patient samples contained the smallest quantities of synovial fluid HGF at 0.9 +/- 0.1 ng/ml. RA synovial fluid contained significantly more HGF than did RA peripheral blood (1.1 +/- 0.2 ng/ml) (P < 0.05). Rheumatoid synovial fluids induced more scattering of cells than did OA synovial fluids, suggesting a role for this cytokine in rheumatoid joint destruction. Interleukin-1 beta induced expression of rheumatoid synovial tissue fibroblast antigenic HGF and scatter factor activity. Immunohistochemically, HGF, as well as the HGF receptor (the met gene product), localized to significantly more rheumatoid synovial tissue lining cells than normal lining cells (P < 0.05). Both HGF and its receptor immunolocalized to subsynovial macrophages as well. Levels of synovial tissue immunoreactive HGF correlated positively with the number of synovial tissue blood vessels. Anti-HGF neutralized a mean of 24% of the chemotactic activity for endothelial cells found in 10 rheumatoid synovial fluid samples.
Conclusion: These results indicate that synovial HGF may contribute to the vasculoproliferative phase of inflammatory arthritides such as RA, by inducing HGF-mediated synovial neovascularization. These findings point to a newly described role for HGF in the fibroproliferative phase of RA-associated synovitis.