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Am J Pathol. 1999 May;154(5):1391-406.

N-cadherin-mediated human granulosa cell adhesion prevents apoptosis: a role in follicular atresia and luteolysis?

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Division of Human Reproduction, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Center for Research on Reproduction and Women's Health, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelpha, PA, USA.


Studies suggest that cell-cell interactions may regulate apoptosis, and in particular, the calcium-dependent cell adhesion molecule N-cadherin has been shown to be capable of modulating this process. Rat granulosa cells (GCs) are known to express N-cadherin whereas cAMP is known to induce apoptosis in human and rat GCs. Based on these observations, we hypothesized that N-cadherin regulates human GC apoptosis via a cAMP-dependent mechanism. N-cadherin expression was evaluated in ovarian follicles and corpora lutea utilizing immunohistochemical techniques and in luteinized GCs in culture using immunoblotting, flow cytometric analysis, immunohistochemistry, and indirect immunofluorescence techniques utilizing anti-N-cadherin antibodies directed against both the extracellular and cytoplasmic domains of the molecule. Apoptosis was assessed by TUNEL and DNA fragmentation analysis and confirmed by flow cytometric cell cycle analysis and electron microscopy. The rate of GC apoptosis was found to be two- to three-fold lower among aggregated cells, as compared with single cells. N-cadherin was found to be expressed by aggregating GCs in vitro and GCs cultured in the presence of either N-cadherin function disrupting antibodies or peptides exhibiting enhanced rates of apoptosis. GCs in situ stained intensely for N-cadherin in preantral and normal growing preovulatory follicles as well as early corpora lutea. N-cadherin was weak in atretic follicles and regressing corpora lutea. Exposure of GCs to cAMP increased apoptosis while decreasing N-cadherin protein expression in a dose-dependent manner. Cell culture under serum-free conditions increased apoptosis and decreased N-cadherin expression, in part through cleavage of the extracellular domain of the molecule. The metalloproteinase inhibitor 1-10-phenanthroline inhibited the cleavage of the extracellular domain of N-cadherin and concomitantly inhibited the serum-deprivation-induced apoptosis of aggregated GCs. Collectively, these observations suggest that down-regulation of N-cadherin or the absence of a functional extracellular domain of the molecule prevents cell aggregation and is associated with GC apoptosis. In addition, cAMP induces apoptosis in a dose-dependent manner, and this process is dependent, at least in part, on regulation of the N-cadherin molecule at the surface of the cells. We conclude that N-cadherin-mediated GC signaling plays a central role in follicular and luteal cell survival.

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