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Plast Reconstr Surg. 1998 May;101(6):1431-40.

Studies in cranial suture biology: up-regulation of transforming growth factor-beta1 and basic fibroblast growth factor mRNA correlates with posterior frontal cranial suture fusion in the rat.

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  • 1Division of Plastic Surgery at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA.


The mechanisms involved in normal cranial suture development and fusion as well as in the pathophysiology of craniosyostosis are not well understood. The purpose of this study was to investigate the expression of several cytokines--transforming growth factor-beta-1 (TGF-beta1), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), and interleukin-6 (IL-6)--during cranial suture fusion. TGF-beta exists in three mammalian isoforms that are abundant in bone and stimulate calvarial bone formation when delivered locally. Other bone growth factors including basic fibroblast growth factor and the interleukins regulate bone growth and are mitogenic for bone marrow cells and osteoblasts. The involvement of growth factors in the pathophysiology of craniosynostosis is supported by recent genetics data linking fibroblast growth factor receptor mutations to syndromal craniosynostoses. In this experimental study, in situ hybridization was used to localize and quantify the gene expression of TGF-beta1, bFGF, and IL-6 during cranial suture fusion. In the Sprague-Dawley rat, the posterior frontal cranial suture normally undergoes fusion between 12 and 22 days of age, whereas all other cranial sutures remain patent. All in situ analyses of fusing posterior frontal sutures were compared with the patent, control, sagittal sutures. Posterior frontal and sagittal sutures, together with underlying dura, were harvested from rats at 8, 12, 16, and 35 days of postnatal life to analyze posterior frontal suture activity before, during, and after fusion. In situ hybridization was performed on frozen sections of these specimens using DNA probes specific for TGF-beta1, bFGF, and IL-6 mRNA. A negative control probe to IL-6 in the sense orientation was also used to validate the procedure. Cells expressing cytokine-specific mRNA were quantified (in cells positive per 10(-1) mm2) and analyzed using the unpaired Student's t test. Areas encompassing the fibrous suture and the surrounding bone plates were analyzed for cellular mRNA activity. IL-6 mRNA expression showed a minimal rise in the posterior frontal suture at days 12 and 16, with an average count of 10 and 6 cells per 10(-1) mm2, respectively. The sagittal suture remained negative for IL-6 mRNA at all time points. TGF-beta1 and bFGF analyses were most interesting, showing marked increases specifically in the posterior frontal suture during the time of active suture fusion. On postnatal day 8, a 1.5-fold increase in posterior frontal suture TGF-beta1 mRNA was found compared with sagittal sutures (p = 0.1890, unpaired Student's t test). This difference was increased 26-fold on day 12 in posterior frontal suture TGF-beta1 expression (p = 0.0005). By day 35, posterior frontal suture TGF-beta1 mRNA had nearly returned to prefusion levels, whereas TGF-beta1 mRNA levels in the sagittal suture remained low. A similar upregulation of bFGF mRNA, peaking at day 12, was observed in posterior frontal but not sagittal sutures (p = 0.0003). Furthermore, both TGF-beta1 and bFGF mRNA samples with intact dura showed an intense dural mRNA expression in the time preceding and during active posterior frontal suture fusion but not in sagittal tissues. Our data demonstrate that TGF-beta1 and bFGF mRNA are up-regulated in cranial suture fusion, possibly signaling in a paracrine fashion from dura to suture. TGF-beta1 and bFGF gene expression were dramatically increased both in and surrounding the actively fusing suture and followed the direction of fusion from endocranial to epicranial. These experimental data on bone growth factors support the recent human genetics data linking growth factor/fibroblast growth factor receptor deletions to syndromal craniosynostoses. The ultimate aim of these studies is to understand the underlying mechanisms regulating suture growth, development, and fusion so surgeons may one day manipulate the biology of premature cranial suture fusion.

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