Human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is generally a highly vascular tumor, but the mechanisms of neovascularization that permit rapid growth have not been defined. Angiopoietins (Ang) recently have been identified as ligands for vascular endothelial-specific Tie2 receptor tyrosine kinase and may be important growth factors in the generation of new blood vessels. We investigated Ang expression in 23 samples of HCC and paired adjacent uninvolved liver samples to determine if these genes have a potential role in the growth and spread of this disease. The full coding sequence of a variant angiopoietin-2 (Ang2) cDNA was obtained from HCC specimens, and the biologic consequences of overexpression on tumor formation and hemorrhage were determined in an animal model system. Angiopoietin-1 (Ang1) was equally expressed in HCC and adjacent noncarcinomatous liver tissue. Surprisingly, Ang2 was found to be highly expressed only in tumor tissue. In addition, Ang2 was expressed in 10 of 12 hypervascular HCC, but only in 2 of 11 hypovascular HCC. Ectopic expression of Ang2 in nonexpressing HCC cells promotes the rapid development of human hepatomas and produces hemorrhage within tumors in nude mice. These results suggest a role for Ang2 in the neovascularization of HCC. This enhanced gene expression may contribute to the clinical hypervascular phenotype, as well as tumor formation and progression.
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