Tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF) induced a cytotoxic response in ME-180 human cervical carcinoma cells in vitro. This cytotoxic response was accompanied by a temporal series of intracellular signals that are commonly triggered by a mitogenic stimulus: increased c-fos (20-30 min) and c-myc (40-60 min) expression, increased activity of ornithine decarboxylase (3 h), increased intracellular polyamine content (7 h) and increased thymidine incorporation into DNA (14 h). A cytotoxic response independent of these mitogenic signals could not be explained by an induction of interleukin-6, which is an autocrine cytotoxic agent in some cell types; nor by a biphasic, dose-dependent response in which low concentrations of TNF are mitogenic and higher concentrations are cytotoxic. Conversely, a dependent role of these mitogenic signals was suggested by the absence of a TNF-promoted increase in thymidine incorporation into DNA in an ME-180 clone that is resistant to TNF-induced cytotoxicity. A decrease in the proliferation rate of TNF-sensitive cells induced by either alpha-difluoromethylornithine treatment (resulting in polyamine depletion) or serum starvation rendered the cells insensitive to TNF-induced cytotoxicity, further suggesting a role for mitogenic signals and cell division in TNF-mediated cytotoxicity. However, inhibiting proliferation with cycloheximide resulted in increased sensitivity to TNF, implying that mitogenesis itself was not essential for a cytotoxic response. TNF induced DNA fragmentation in sensitive cells, suggesting that cytotoxicity occurred via apoptosis.

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