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Regulation of apoptosis proteins in cancer cells by ubiquitin


Ubiquitin inhibitors act at many levels to enhance apoptosis signaling. For TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL)-mediated apoptosis signaling, there are at least five mechanisms by which apoptosis are regulated by the ubiquitin–proteasome pathway. First, proteasome inhibitors can decrease Fas-like inhibitor protein (FLIP) protein levels in tumors, resulting in increased apoptosis signaling due to increased caspase-8 activation. This appears to involve the ubiquitin ligase TNF receptor activation factor-2 (TRAF2) and acts indirectly by causing cell-cycle arrest at a stage where there is high degradation of the FLIP–TRAF2 complex. Second, the regulation of the proapoptotic Bcl-2 family member BAX occurs indirectly. Apoptosis signaling and caspase activation results in a confirmation change in the normally monomeric BAX, which exposes the BH3 domain of BAX, leading to dimerization and resistance to ubiquitin degradation. BAX then translocates into the mitochondria, resulting in the release of proapoptotic mitochondrial factors such as cytochrome c and second mitochondria-derived activator of caspase (SMAC). This results in the activation of caspase-9 and formation of the apoptosome and efficient apoptosis signaling. A third mechanism of the regulation of TRAIL signaling in the ubiquitin–proteasome pathway is mediated by the inhibitor of apoptosis proteins (IAP) E3 ligases. These IAPs can directly bind to caspases but also can act as ubiquitin ligases for caspases, resulting in the degradation of these caspases. IAP binding to caspases can be inhibited by SMAC, which exhibits a caspase-9 homology domain. The fourth mechanism for apoptosis activation by proteasome inhibitors is through the stabilization of the inhibitor of the κB (IκB)/NF-κB complex and prevention of nuclear translocation of the antiapoptosis transcription factor NF-κB. During TRAIL-DR4, DR5 signaling, this pathway is activated by interactions of activated Fas-associated death domain with activated receptor-interacting protein (RIP), which in turn activates NF-κB-inducing kinase and phosphorylates IκB. Therefore, the inhibition of IκB degradation blocks this RIP-mediated antiapoptosis signaling event. Last, p53 protein levels, and susceptibility to apoptosis, can be deregulated by the human homolog Hdm2 (Mdm2) E3 ligase. This process is inhibited by p53 phosphorylation and by sequestration of Mdm2 by ARF. Better mechanisms to inhibit the ubiquitin–proteasome pathway targeted at the ubiquitin–proteasome degradation process itself, or more specifically at the E3 ligases known to modulate and downregulate proapoptosis pathways will lead to the enhancement of TRAIL apoptosis signaling and better cancer therapeutic outcomes act through this pathway.

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We thank Ms Carol Humber for excellent secretarial work. This work is supported by NIH Grants R01 AG 11653, N01, RO1 AI 42900 and CA 20408, a Birmingham VAMC Merit Review Grant, and a grant from Sankyo Inc. Huang-Ge Zhang is a recipient of Arthritis Foundation Investigator Award.

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Correspondence to John D Mountz.

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Zhang, HG., Wang, J., Yang, X. et al. Regulation of apoptosis proteins in cancer cells by ubiquitin. Oncogene 23, 2009–2015 (2004).

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  • cancer
  • apoptosis
  • ubiquitin proteasome inhibitor
  • BAX
  • NF-κB; p53
  • Mdm2

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