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Cancer Res. 2009 Oct 1;69(19):7595-602. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-09-1482. Epub 2009 Sep 22.

Overactivation of the MEK/ERK pathway in liver tumor cells confers resistance to TGF-{beta}-induced cell death through impairing up-regulation of the NADPH oxidase NOX4.

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  • 1Laboratori de Oncologia Molecular and Departament de Ciències Fisiològiques II, Institut d'Investigació Biomèdica de Bellvitge (IDIBELL), Universitat de Barcelona, L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Barcelona, Spain.


Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) induces apoptosis in hepatocytes, being considered a liver tumor suppressor. However, many human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells escape from its proapoptotic effects, gaining response to this cytokine in terms of malignancy. We have recently reported that the apoptosis induced by TGF-beta in hepatocytes requires up-regulation of the NADPH oxidase NOX4, which mediates reactive oxygen species (ROS) production. TGF-beta-induced NOX4 expression is inhibited by antiapoptotic signals, such as the phosphatydilinositol-3-phosphate kinase or the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK)/extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathways. The aim of the present work was to analyze whether resistance to TGF-beta-induced apoptosis in HCC cells is related to the impairment of NOX4 up-regulation due to overactivation of survival signals. Results indicate that inhibition of the MAPK/ERK kinase (MEK)/ERK pathway in HepG2 cells, which are refractory to the proapoptotic effects of TGF-beta, sensitizes them to cell death through a mitochondrial-dependent mechanism, coincident with increased levels of BIM and BMF, decreased levels of BCL-XL and MCL1, and BAX/BAK activation. Regulation of BMF, BCL-XL, and MCL1 occurs at the mRNA level, whereas BIM regulation occurs post-transcriptionally. ROS production and glutathione depletion are only observed in cells treated with TGF-beta and PD98059, which correlates with NOX4 up-regulation. Targeting knockdown of NOX4 impairs ROS increase and all the mitochondrial-dependent apoptotic features by a mechanism that is upstream from the regulation of BIM, BMF, BCL-XL, and MCL1 levels. In conclusion, overactivation of the MEK/ERK pathway in liver tumor cells confers resistance to TGF-beta-induced cell death through impairing NOX4 up-regulation, which is required for an efficient mitochondrial-dependent apoptosis.

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