Proteoglycan assembly in malignant tumours is subject to profound changes. The significance of these alterations is not well understood; especially, their role in nuclear regulation is a topic for debate. The capacity of heparin and liver carcinoma heparan sulphate (HS) to alter DNA–transcription factor interactions has been studied to provide further evidence concerning the regulatory potential of glycosaminoglycan (GAG) in the nucleus. Experiments both in vitro and in vivo indicated that heparin and HS are capable of inhibiting the interaction of transcription factors with their consensus oligonucleotide elements. Among five transcription factors studied, AP-1, SP-1, ETS-1 and nuclear factor κB proved to be sensitive to heparin and heparan sulphate, whereas TFIID was hardly inhibited in either in vitro or in vivo systems. Interestingly, HS from peritumoral liver was five times more effective than heparin. Liver carcinoma HS was less effective than liver HS, but its activity was comparable with that of heparin. These results indicate that the structural differences of GAG chains strongly influence their biological behaviour. The loss of their recognized functional activity in malignant tumours might promote the development of uncontrolled growth and gene expression favouring the neoplastic process.

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