Lymph node metastasis is one of the most important prognostic factors in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC). Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-C and its receptor, VEGF receptor-3 (VEGFR-3), are key in the process of lymphangiogenesis. The present study immunohistochemically examined the expression of VEGF-C, VEGFR-3 and D2-40 in 119 patients with ESCC, and microlymphatic vessel density (MLVD) was calculated based on D2-40 expression counts. Positive expression of VEGF-C was found to correlate significantly with depth of tumor invasion, lymphatic invasion and lymph node metastasis (P<0.001, P<0.0001 and P<0.0001, respectively). Patients with deeper tumor invasion showed higher positivity of VEGFR-3 expression (P<0.05), while patients with lymph node metastasis showed higher MLVD (P<0.05). When patients were divided into three groups according to the expression of VEGF-C and VEGFR-3, patients with coexpression of VEGF-C and VEGFR-3 exhibited poorer prognosis and higher MLVD. The VEGF-C/VEGFR-3 axis is important in tumor lymphangiogenesis.
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