Collagen VII is the major structural constituent of anchoring fibrils in the skin. It is synthesized as a procollagen that is larger than the collagen deposited in the tissue. In this study, we investigated the conversion of procollagen VII to collagen VII in human skin and in cutaneous cells in vitro and identified the propeptide using domain-specific antibodies. For this purpose, two bacterial fusion proteins containing unique sequences of the carboxy-terminal globular NC-2 domain of procollagen VII were prepared, and polyclonal antibodies raised against them. Immunoblotting showed that the anti-NC2 antibodies reacted with procollagen VII isolated from cultured keratinocytes, but not with collagen VII extracted from the skin. Immunohistochemical experiments with the NC-2 antibodies revealed a strong reaction in cultured keratinocytes, but the basement membrane zone of normal skin remained negative. The staining could not be rendered positive by chemical or enzymatic unmasking of potential hidden epitopes in the skin, indicating that most of the NC-2 domain is absent from normal skin. In contrast, a positive staining with NC-2 antibodies was observed in the skin of a patient with NC-2 antibodies was observed in the skin of a patient with dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, who carried a 14-bp deletion at one of the intro-exon junctions of the collagen VII gene. This aberration led to an in-frame skipping of exon 115 from the mRNA and eliminated 29 amino acids from the NC-2 domain which include the putative cleavage site for the physiological processing enzyme, procollagen C-proteinase. The results indicate that in normal human skin, the removal of the NC-2 domain from procollagen VII precedes its deposition at the dermal-epidermal junction. Furthermore, they suggest that an aberration in the procollagen VII cleavage interferes with the normal fibrillogenesis of the anchoring fibrils.

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