In the present study, signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) Ser727 phosphorylation and transactivation was investigated in relation to activation of mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase family members including extracellular-signal-regulated protein kinase (ERK)-1, c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK)-1 and p38 (‘reactivating kinase’) in response to interleukin (IL)-6 stimulation. Although IL-6 can activate ERK-1 in HepG2 cells, STAT3 transactivation and Ser727 phosphorylation were not reduced by using the MAP kinase/ERK kinase (MEK) inhibitor PD98059 or by overexpression of dominant-negative Raf. IL-6 did not activate JNK-1 in HepG2 cells and STAT3 was a poor substrate for JNK-1 activated by anisomycin, excluding a role for JNK1 in IL-6-induced STAT3 activation. However, SEK-1/MKK-4 [where SEK-1 stands for stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK)/ERK kinase 1, and MKK-4 stands for MAP kinase kinase 4] was activated in response to IL-6 and overexpression of dominant-negative SEK-1/MKK-4(A-L) reduced both IL-6-induced STAT3 Ser727 phosphorylation as well as STAT3 transactivation. Subsequently, the SEK-1/MKK-4 upstream components Vav, Rac-1 and MEKK were identified as components of a signal transduction cascade that leads to STAT3 transactivation in response to IL-6 stimulation. Furthermore, inhibition of p38 kinase activity with the inhibitor SB203580 did not block STAT3 Ser727 phosphorylation but rather increased both basal as well as IL-6-induced STAT3 transactivation, indicating that p38 may act as a negative regulator of IL-6-induced STAT3 transactivation through a presently unknown mechanism. In conclusion, these data indicate that IL-6-induced STAT3 transactivation and Ser727 phosphorylation is independent of ERK-1 or JNK-1 activity, but involves a gp130 receptor-signalling cascade that includes Vav, Rac-1, MEKK and SEK-1/MKK-4 as signal transduction components.

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