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Exp Cell Res. 1999 Dec 15;253(2):403-12.

p21 promotes ceramide-induced apoptosis and antagonizes the antideath effect of Bcl-2 in human hepatocarcinoma cells.

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Department of Life Science, College of Natural Sciences, Chung-Ang University, Seoul, 156-756, Korea.


p21, a potent cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor, has been known to induce cell cycle arrest in response to DNA-damaging agents. Although p21 has been reported to play an important role in the regulation of apoptosis, the postulated role for p21 in apoptosis is still controversial. Previously, we reported that p21 was induced in a p53-independent manner during ceramide-induced apoptosis in human hepatocarcinoma cell lines. In the present study, we investigated the precise role of p21 in ceramide-induced apoptosis in human hepatocarcinoma cells by using a tetracycline-inducible expression system. Overexpression of p21 by itself did not induce apoptosis in p53-deficient Hep3B cells. However, Hep3B/p21 cells were more sensitive to ceramide-induced apoptosis. In these cells, p21 overexpression did not result in G1 arrest. The expression level of Bax was increased in Hep3B/p21 cells treated with ceramide and its expression was more accelerated under the p21-overexpressed condition compared to that of the p21-repressed condition. Overexpression of Bax induced apoptosis in Hep3B cells. On the other hand, the levels of p21 and Bax protein were increased by ceramide in another hepatocarcinoma cell line, SK-Hep-1, while the Bcl-2 protein level was not changed. Overexpression of Bcl-2 not only suppressed apoptosis but also completely prevented induction of p21 and Bax caused by ceramide in SK-Hep-1 cells. Furthermore, overexpression of p21 antagonized the death-protective function of Bcl-2 and upregulated expression of Bax protein. These results suggest that p21 promotes ceramide-induced apoptosis by enhancing the expression of Bax, thereby modulating the molecular ratio of Bcl-2:Bax in human hepatocarcinoma cells.

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