Recent investigations have indicated the involvement of proteasome in programmed cell death. The present studies show that although peptide aldehyde inhibitors of proteasome are by themselves weak inducers of apoptosis, they inhibit the apoptotic effect of the anticancer drug etoposide in rat thymocytes. Acetyl-Leu-Leu-norvalinal (LLnV-al) and other related peptide aldehydes inhibited the increase in caspase activity and DNA fragmentation that followed treatment with etoposide and their effect was related to their potency as proteasome inhibitors. To inhibit etoposide-induced apoptosis, LLnV-al must be present within 3 h of treatment with etoposide, in the same way as the inhibitor of protein synthesis cycloheximide must be. Etoposide caused a rapid accumulation of p53 protein that was not inhibited by LLnV-al, which was also a strong inducer of p53. Peptide aldehydes were also weak activators of caspase activity, suggesting that the same mechanism, i.e. the blocking of proteasome function, both triggers apoptosis and inhibits the effect of etoposide. These results are consistent with a model in which proteasome is selectively involved in the pathway used by etoposide to induce cell suicide.

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