The bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) antagonist gremlin 1 plays a central role in the pathogenesis of hypoxic pulmonary hypertension (HPH). Recently, non-canonical functions of gremlin 1 have been identified, including specific binding to the vascular endothelial growth factor receptor-2 (VEGFR2). We tested the hypothesis that gremlin 1 modulates VEGFR2 signaling in the pulmonary microvascular endothelium.
We examined the effect of gremlin 1 haploinsufficiency on the expression of VEGF responsive genes and proteins in the hypoxic (10% O2) murine lung in vivo. Using human microvascular endothelial cells in vitro we examined the effect of gremlin 1 on VEGF signaling.
Gremlin 1 haploinsufficiency (Grem1+/–) attenuated the hypoxia-induced increase in gremlin 1 observed in the wild-type mouse lung. Reduced gremlin 1 expression in hypoxic Grem1+/– mice restored VEGFR2 expression and endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS) expression and activity to normoxic values. Recombinant monomeric gremlin 1 inhibited VEGFA-induced VEGFR2 activation, downstream signaling, and VEGF-induced increases in Bcl-2, cell number, and the anti-apoptotic effect of VEGFA in vitro.
These results show that the monomeric form of gremlin 1 acts as an antagonist of VEGFR2 activation in the pulmonary microvascular endothelium. Given the previous demonstration that inhibition of VEGFR2 causes marked worsening of HPH, our results suggest that increased gremlin 1 in the hypoxic lung, in addition to blocking BMP receptor type-2 (BMPR2) signaling, contributes importantly to the development of PH by a non-canonical VEGFR2 blocking activity.