Phenobarbital is an inducer of xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes, such as cytochrome P-450, glutathione S-transferases (GSTs) and NAD(P)H:quinone reductase, as well as being a promoter of hepatocarcinogenesis. The molecular mechanisms regulating these biological activities are, however, unknown. In this paper we show that induction by phenobarbital of GST Ya and quinone reductase gene expression is mediated by regulatory elements, EpRE and ARE respectively, which are composed of two adjacent AP-1-like binding sites. EpRE was recently found to be activated by a Fos/Jun heterodimeric complex (AP-1). Here we show that phenobarbital induces an increase in AP-1 binding activity in nuclear extracts of cultured hepatoma cells. Furthermore, we observe that the induction of chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) activity from an EpRE Ya-cat gene construct and of AP-1 binding activity by phenobarbital is inhibited by the thiol compounds N-acetyl-L-cysteine and glutathione. These results suggest that the phenobarbital induction of AP-1 activity, leading to the AP-1-mediated transcriptional activation of the GST Ya and quinone reductase genes, may involve production of reactive oxygen species and an increase in intracellular oxidant levels, which is prevented by thiol compounds. In view of the involvement of AP-1 in the control of cell proliferation and transformation, the induction by phenobarbital of AP-1 binding activity observed here provides a possible molecular mechanism for the tumour-promoting activity of this drug.

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