The transcription factor Nrf2, which normally exists in an inactive state as a consequence of binding to a cytoskeleton-associated protein Keap1, can be activated by redox-dependent stimuli. Alteration of the Nrf2–Keap1 interaction enables Nrf2 to translocate to the nucleus, bind to the antioxidant-responsive element (ARE) and initiate the transcription of genes coding for detoxifying enzymes and cytoprotective proteins. This response is also triggered by a class of electrophilic compounds including polyphenols and plant-derived constituents. Recently, the natural antioxidants curcumin and caffeic acid phenethyl ester (CAPE) have been identified as potent inducers of haem oxygenase-1 (HO-1), a redox-sensitive inducible protein that provides protection against various forms of stress. Here, we show that in renal epithelial cells both curcumin and CAPE stimulate the expression of Nrf2 in a concentration- and time-dependent manner. This effect was associated with a significant increase in HO-1 protein expression and haem oxygenase activity. From several lines of investigation we also report that curcumin (and, by inference, CAPE) stimulates ho-1 gene activity by promoting inactivation of the Nrf2–Keap1 complex, leading to increased Nrf2 binding to the resident ho-1 AREs. Moreover, using antibodies and specific inhibitors of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathways, we provide data implicating p38 MAPK in curcumin-mediated ho-1 induction. Taken together, these results demonstrate that induction of HO-1 by curcumin and CAPE requires the activation of the Nrf2/ARE pathway.

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