Background: Mast cells (MCs) are multifunctional effector cells of the immune system. These cells originate from pluripotent hemopoietic progenitors. In contrast to basophils and other leukocytes, MCs exhibit a remarkably long life span (years) in vivo. Although a role for stem cell factor (SCF) and SCF receptor (KIT) in long-term survival of MCs has been proposed, the underlying biochemical mechanisms remain unknown. Materials and Methods: We have examined expression of ‘survival-related’ molecules of the bcl-2 family including bcl-2 and bcl-xL, in primary human MCs and the human MC line HMC-1. Primary MCs were isolated from dispersed lung tissue by cell sorting using an antibody against KIT. mRNA expression was analyzed by RT-PCR and Northern blotting. Results: As assessed by RT-PCR, purified unstimulated lung MCs (>98% pure) exhibited KIT- and bcl-xL mRNA, but did not express bcl-2 mRNA. However, exposure of lung MCS to SCF (100 ng/ml) for 8 h resulted in expression of bcl-2 mRNA. Corresponding results were obtained by immunocytochemistry. In fact, exposure of MC to SCF resulted in expression of the bcl-2 protein whereas unstimulated MCs displayed only the bcl-xL protein without expressing the bcl-2 protein. The human MC leukemia cell line HMC-1, which contains a mutated and intrinsically activated SCF receptor, showed constitutive expression of both bcl-2 and bcl-xL at the mRNA and protein level. Conclusion: Our data show that human MCs can express members of the bcl-2 family. It is hypothesized that bcl-xL plays a role in KIT-independent growth of MCs, whereas bcl-2 may be involved in KIT-dependent functions of MCs.

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