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Mol Pharm. 2012 May 7;9(5):1449-58. doi: 10.1021/mp3000259. Epub 2012 Mar 28.

Direct induction of apoptosis using an optimal mitochondrially targeted p53.

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  • 1Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84108, United States.


Targeting the tumor suppressor p53 to the mitochondria triggers a rapid apoptotic response as efficiently as transcription-dependent p53. (1, 2) p53 forms a complex with the antiapoptotic Bcl-XL, which leads to Bak and Bax oligomerization resulting in apoptosis via mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization. (3, 4) Although p53 performs its main role in the mitochondrial outer membrane, it also interacts with different proteins in the mitochondrial inner membrane and matrix. (5, 6) To further investigate mitochondrial activity of p53, EGFP-p53 was fused to different mitochondrial targeting signals (MTSs) directing it to the mitochondrial outer membrane ("XL-MTS" from Bcl-XL; "TOM-MTS" from TOM20), the inner membrane ("CCO-MTS" from cytochrome c oxidase), or matrix ("OTC-MTS" from ornithine transcarbamylase). Fluorescence microscopy and a p53 reporter dual luciferase assay demonstrated that fusing MTSs to p53 increased mitochondrial localization and nuclear exclusion depending on which MTS was used. To examine if the MTSs initiate mitochondrial damage, we fused each individual MTS to EGFP (a nontoxic protein) as negative controls. We performed caspase-9, TUNEL, annexin-V, and 7-AAD apoptosis assays on T47D breast cancer cells transfected with mitochondrial constructs. Except for EGFP-XL, apoptotic potential was observed in all MTS-EGFP-p53 and MTS-EGFP constructs. In addition, EGFP-p53-XL showed the greatest significant increase in programmed cell death compared to its nontoxic MTS control (EGFP-XL). The apoptotic mechanism for each construct was further investigated using pifithrin-α (an inhibitor of p53 transcriptional activity), pifithrin-μ (a small molecule that reduces binding of p53 to Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL), and overexpressing the antiapoptotic Bcl-XL. Unlike the MTSs from TOM, CCO, and OTC, which showed different apoptotic mechanisms, we conclude that p53 fused to the MTS from Bcl-XL performs its apoptotic potential exclusively through the p53/Bcl-XL specific pathway.

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