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Growth factors

The growth of eukaryotic cells is modulated by various influences, of which growth
factors are amongst the most important for many cell types. A wide range of polypeptide
growth factors have been identified (Figure 1) and more undoubtedly remain to be
characterized. Factors that inhibit cell growth also exist, e.g. interferons (IFNs) and
tumour necrosis factor (TNF) inhibit proliferation of various cell types. Some growth
factors may be classified as cytokines, e.g. ILs, transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β)
and colony stimulating factors (CSFs). Others, e.g. insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) are
not members of this family. Each growth factor has a mitogenic (promotes cell division)
effect on a characteristic range of cells. While some such factors affect only a few cell
types, most stimulate the growth of a wide range of cells.

Figure 1: Overview of some polypeptide growth factors


The wound-healing process is complex and as yet not fully understood. The area of
tissue damage becomes the focus of various events, often beginning with immunological
and inflammatory reactions. The various cells involved in such processes, as well as
additional cells at the site of the wound, also secrete various growth factors. These
mitogens stimulate the growth and activation of various cell types, including fibroblasts
(which produce collagen and elastin precursors, and ground substance), epithelial cells
(e.g. skin cells) and vascular endothelial cells. Such cells advance healing by promoting
processes such as granulation (growth of connective tissue and small blood vessels at
the healing surface) and subsequent epithelialization. The growth factors that appear
most significant to this process include fibroblast growth factors (FGFs), transforming
growth factors (TGFs), platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF), insulin-like growth factor 1
(IGF-1) and epidermal growth factor (EGF).


The insulin-like growth factors (also termed ‘somatomedins’), constitute a family of two
closely related (small) polypeptides: insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and insulin-like
growth factor 2 (IGF-2). As the names suggest, these growth factors bear a strong
structural resemblance to insulin (or, more accurately, proinsulin). Infusion of IGF-1
decreases circulating levels of insulin and glucagon, increases tissue glucose uptake and
inhibits hepatic glucose export. IGFs display pluripotent activities, regulating the growth,
activation, differentiation (and maintenance of the differentiated state) of a wide variety of
cell and tissue types (discussed later). The full complexity and variety of their biological
activities are only now beginning to be appreciated.


EGF was one of the first growth factors discovered. Its existence was initially noted in the
1960s as a factor present in saliva, which could promote premature tooth eruption and
eyelid opening in neonatal mice. It was first purified from urine and named urogastrone,
owing to its ability to inhibit the secretion of gastric acid. EGF has subsequently proved to
exert a powerful mitogenic effect on many cell types, and its receptor is expressed by
most cells. Its influence on endothelial cells, epithelial cells and fibroblasts is particularly
noteworthy, and the skin appears to be its major physiological target. It stimulates growth
of the epidermal layer. Along with several other growth factors, EGF plays a role in the
wound-healing process. EGF is synthesized mainly by monocytes and ectodermal cells,
as well as by the kidney and duodenal glands. It is found in most bodily fluids, especially


Platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) is a polypeptide growth factor which is sometimes
termed ‘osteosarcoma-derived growth factor’ (ODGF) or ‘glioma-derived growth
factor’ (GDGF). It was first identified over 20 years ago as being the major growth factor
synthesized by platelets. It is also produced by a variety of cell types. PDGF exhibits a
mitogenic effect on fibroblasts, smooth muscle cells and glial cells, and exerts various
additional biological activities.


Fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) constitute a family of about 20 proteins (numbered
consecutively FGF-1 to FGF-20). Typically, they display a molecular mass in the region
of 18– 28 kDa and induce a range of mitogenic, chemotactic and angiogenic responses.
FGFs induce the majority of their characteristic responses via binding to high-affinity cell
surface receptors. Four such receptors, which show 55-72% homology at the amino acid
level, have been identified to date. The receptors are multi-domain, consisting of three
extracellular immunoglobulin-like domains (Ig domains), a highly hydrophobic
transmembrane domain and two intracellular tyrosine kinase domains. Different receptors
are found on different cell types and each receptor is either strongly, moderately, poorly
or not activated by its own characteristic range of FGFs. This signalling complexity
underscores the complexity of biological responses induced by FGFs.

Transforming growth factors (TGFs) represent yet another family of polypeptide
mitogens. The members of this family include TGF-α, as well as several species of TGF-

TGF-α is initially synthesized as an integral membrane protein. Proteolytic cleavage
releases the soluble growth factor, which is a 50 amino acid polypeptide. This growth
factor exhibits a high amino acid homology with EGF, and it induces its biological effects
by binding to the EGF receptor. It is synthesized by various body tissues, as well as by
monocytes and keratinocytes. It is also manufactured by many tumour cell types, for
which it can act as an autocrine growth factor. TGF-βwas first described as a growth
factor capable of inducing transformation of several fibroblast cell lines (hence the name,
transforming growth factors). It is now recognized that ‘TGF-β’ actually consists of three
separate growth factors: TGF-β1, -β2 and -β3. Although the product of distinct genes, all
exhibit close homology. In the mature form, they exist as homodimers, with each subunit
containing 112 amino acid residues. Most body cells synthesize TGF-β, singly or in


Neurotrophic factors constitute a group of cytokines that regulate the development,
maintenance and survival of neurons in both the central and peripheral nervous systems.
While the first member of this family (nerve growth factor, NGF) was discovered more
than 50 years ago, it is only in the last decade that the other members have been
identified and characterized. The major sub-family of neurotrophic factors are the
neurotrophins. The neurotrophins are a group of neurotrophic factors which all belong to
the same gene family. They include NGF, as well as brain-derived neurotrophic factor
(BDNF), neurotrophin-3 (NT-3), neurotrophin 4/5 (NT-4/5) and neurotrophin-6 (NT-6). All
are small, basic proteins sharing approximately 50% amino acid homology. They exist
mainly as homodimers and promote signal transduction by binding to a member of the
Trk family of tyrosine kinase receptors.


Walsh, G. (2013). Biopharmaceuticals: biochemistry and biotechnology. John Wiley &