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Apoptosis. 1997;2(2):136-48.

Human keratinocytes maintain reversible anti-apoptotic defenses in vivo and in vitro.

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Department of Dermatology, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver 80262, USA.


Human keratinocytes proliferate and differentiate in an epidermal environment where induction of apoptosis can be triggered by ultraviolet radiation (UVR), activated lymphocytes and cytokines. The purpose of this study was to determine whether keratinocytes were susceptible to apoptosis induced by ionophore, ultra-violet radiation, cytokines or crosslinking of CD95 (Fas/APO-1). In normal human skin exposed to two minimal erythema doses of ultraviolet radiation, suprabasal cells were the first keratinocytes to demonstrate apoptotic nuclei, and by 48 h apoptotic cells were identified throughout the mid to upper epidermis. However, most keratinocytes resisted apoptosis and UVR-induced apoptosis was not observed in basal cells, or in the most differentiated epidermis. Human keratinocytes and keratinocyte cell lines cultured in vitro developed maximal apoptosis 48 h after radiation. Human keratinocytes cultured in full growth factor supplements were resistant to UVR-induced apoptosis compared to keratinocyte cell lines or to a lymphoid cell line (HL60) susceptible to apoptosis. Keratinocyte cell lines were completely resistant to apoptosis induced by interferon-gamma, interferon-alpha, IL-2, IL-6, TNF-alpha, IL-1Ra, and GM-CSF. A subset of the cells in cultures of keratinocytes and transformed keratinocyte cell lines died by apoptosis in response to anti-Fas, IL-1alpha and TNF-alpha plus IFN-gamma and ionophore. Second passage freshly isolated human keratinocytes were much more resistant to apoptosis induced by ionophore, anti-Fas and cytokines than were transformed keratinocyte cell lines. Calcium shift to induce differentiation in second-passage keratinocyte cultures made keratinocytes even more resistant to UVR-induced apoptosis. This parallels the lack of UVR-induced apoptosis observed in the most differentiated keratinocytes in irradiated human skin. Both keratinocytes and keratinocyte cell lines express rather low levels of the anti-apoptotic proteins bcl-2 and bcl-x compared to other apoptosis-resistant cell types. The differences between keratinocytes and keratinocyte cell lines in susceptibility to apoptosis are not explained by difference in expression of bcl-2 or bcl-x. Finally, withdrawal of growth factors from keratinocytes decreased cell survival following UVR and increased the induction of apoptosis. Inhibition of protein synthesis with cyclo-heximide also made keratinocytes more susceptible to UVR-induced apoptosis, indicating that anti-apoptotic defences in cultured keratinocytes are dependent on active protein synthesis. These experiments show that the strong keratinocyte defences against apoptosis are stratified within the epidermis, and can be altered by differentiation and growth factor withdrawal.


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