Growth factor is sometimes used interchangeably among scientists with the term cytokine. Historically, cytokines were associated with hematopoietic (blood and lymph forming) cells and immune system cells (e.g., lymphocytes and tissue cells from spleen, thymus, and lymph nodes). For the circulatory system and bone marrow in which cells can occur in a liquid suspension and not bound up in solid tissue, it makes sense for them to communicate by soluble, circulating protein molecules. However, as different lines of research converged, it became clear that some of the same signaling proteins which the hematopoietic and immune systems use were also being used by all sorts of other cells and tissues, during development and in the mature organism.
While growth factor implies a positive effect on cell division, cytokine is a neutral term with respect to whether a molecule affects proliferation. While some cytokines can be growth factors, such as G-CSF and GM-CSF, others have an inhibitory effect on cell growth or proliferation. Some cytokines, such as Fas ligand, are used as "death" signals; they cause target cells to undergo programmed cell death or apoptosis.
The growth factor was first discovered by Rita Levi-Montalcini, which won her a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.