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Infect Immun. 2005 Jan;73(1):155-65.

NF-kappaB activation during Rickettsia rickettsii infection of endothelial cells involves the activation of catalytic IkappaB kinases IKKalpha and IKKbeta and phosphorylation-proteolysis of the inhibitor protein IkappaBalpha.

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  • 1Hemostasis and Thrombosis Program, Hematology-Oncology Unit, Department of Medicine, P.O. Box 610, University of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Ave., Rochester, NY 14642, USA.


Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a systemic tick-borne illness caused by the obligate intracellular bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii, is associated with widespread infection of the vascular endothelium. R. rickettsii infection induces a biphasic pattern of the nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB) activation in cultured human endothelial cells (ECs), characterized by an early transient phase at 3 h and a late sustained phase evident at 18 to 24 h. To elucidate the underlying mechanisms, we investigated the expression of NF-kappaB subunits, p65 and p50, and IkappaB proteins, IkappaBalpha and IkappaBbeta. The transcript and protein levels of p50, p65, and IkappaBbeta remained relatively unchanged during the course of infection, but Ser-32 phosphorylation of IkappaBalpha at 3 h was significantly increased over the basal level in uninfected cells concomitant with a significant increase in the expression of IkappaBalpha mRNA. The level of IkappaBalpha mRNA gradually returned toward baseline, whereas that of total IkappaBalpha protein remained lower than the corresponding controls. The activities of IKKalpha and IKKbeta, the catalytic subunits of IkappaB kinase (IKK) complex, as measured by in vitro kinase assays with immunoprecipitates from uninfected and R. rickettsii-infected ECs, revealed significant increases at 2 h after infection. The activation of IKK and early phase of NF-kappaB response were inhibited by heat treatment and completely abolished by formalin fixation of rickettsiae. The IKK inhibitors parthenolide and aspirin blocked the activities of infection-induced IKKalpha and IKKbeta, leading to attenuation of nuclear translocation of NF-kappaB. Also, increased activity of IKKalpha was evident later during the infection, coinciding with the late phase of NF-kappaB activation. Thus, activation of catalytic components of the IKK complex represents an important upstream signaling event in the pathway for R. rickettsii-induced NF-kappaB activation. Since NF-kappaB is a critical regulator of inflammatory genes and prevents host cell death during infection via antiapoptotic functions, selective inhibition of IKK may provide a potential target for enhanced clearance of rickettsiae and an effective strategy to reduce inflammatory damage to the host during rickettsial infections.

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