Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) has neurotrophic and neuroprotective as well as angiogenic properties, but the pathways involved in VEGF-mediated neuronal survival have not been identified. We found previously that VEGF protects cultured neural cells from death induced by serum withdrawal or hypoxia via the activation of VEGF-2/fetal liver kinase-1 receptors, phosphatidylinositol 3′-kinase, Akt and nuclear factor-κB. We now report that in mouse cortical neuron cultures subjected to hypoxia, the neuroprotective effect of VEGF involves suppression of cell-death pathways mediated by caspase-3. Exposure to hypoxia for 24 h caused the death of 71±4% of cultured neurons; this was reduced to 40±1% by VEGF (n=3, P<0.005) and to 44±1% by the caspase-3 inhibitor benzyloxycarbonyl-DEVD-fluoromethyl ketone (n=3, P<0.005). VEGF inhibited the activation of caspase-3 as measured by the 17-20-kDa caspase-3 cleavage product, and immunolocalization of VEGF and activated caspase-3 showed segregated expression in separate neuronal populations. An antisense, but not sense, oligodeoxyribonucleotide directed against VEGF increased the proportion of neurons expressing activated caspase-3, and correspondingly reduced the viability of hypoxic neurons by 37±2% (n=3, P<0.005). These findings suggest that VEGF protects neurons from hypoxic injury by inhibiting the activation of caspase-3, and could therefore act as an endogenous neuroprotective factor in cerebral ischemia.
- Vascular endothelial growth factor