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Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2004 Oct;45(10):3485-92.

HGF protects corneal epithelial cells from apoptosis by the PI-3K/Akt-1/Bad- but not the ERK1/2-mediated signaling pathway.

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  • 1Department of Ophthalmology and Neuroscience Center of Excellence, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana 70112, USA.



Cell survival is critical during corneal epithelial regeneration after injury, and growth factors could be fundamental in cytoprotection. The goal of this study was to investigate the involvement of the paracrine hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) in the prevention of corneal epithelial cell apoptosis and to identify signal transducers in this process.


Apoptosis in human and rabbit corneal epithelial (HCE and RCE) cells was induced with a nutrient-deprived exhausted medium (ExM) or by treatment with staurosporine (20-100 ng/mL) or the calcium ionophore A23187 (0.5 microM). Apoptotic cells were identified by DNA fragmentation in agarose gels and by Hoechst staining. Active Akt-1 overexpression (Akt-1 pUSEamp cDNA) and small interfering RNA (siRNA) specific for Akt mRNA were used. Immunofluorescence, Western immunoblot analysis, and Akt kinase assays were also used.


Staurosporine, ExM, and A23187 induced DNA fragmentation in HCE and RCE cells. HGF (20 ng/mL) in combination with the apoptotic agents greatly reduced DNA breakdown and the number of Hoechst-positive cells. In the presence of phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase (PI-3K) inhibitors (wortmannin and LY294002), HGF did not overcome apoptosis. However, PD98059, the ERK1/2 cascade pathway inhibitor, was ineffective in preventing HGF protection. HGF induced a sustained activation of Akt-1, and overexpression of active Akt-1 reduced apoptosis. HGF stimulated the downstream targets of Akt, glycogen synthase kinase (GSK-3), and Bad, a proapoptotic member of the Bcl-2 family, an effect that was blocked by PI-3K inhibitors but not by ERK1/2 inhibition. Suppressing the expression of Akt by Akt siRNA led to a decrease in the phosphorylation of Bad and GSK-3. Translocation of Bad to the mitochondria, a critical stage in apoptosis, was prevented by HGF when apoptosis was induced. Moreover, in epithelial cells overexpressing active Akt-1, Bad translocation was also prevented.


HGF modulates multiple signaling cascades in corneal epithelial cells. The results demonstrated that HGF, in a paracrine fashion, protects cells from apoptosis through a PI-3K/Akt/Bad pathway but not through an ERK1/2 pathway. It was also demonstrated that GSK-3 is a target of PI-3K/Akt-1.

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