Cell transformation by growth-promoting oncoproteins renders cells extremely sensitive to apoptosis through an unknown mechanism affecting the mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis. We have shown previously that sensitization to apoptosis also correlated with the activation of the stress-activated protein kinase p38. In the present study, we investigated the role of p38 in c-Myc-dependent apoptosis induced by the anticancer agent cisplatin. Cisplatin treatment of Rat1 cells with deregulated expression of c-Myc resulted in nuclear fragmentation that was accompanied in all cells by the activation of Bax and the translocation of cytochrome c from the mitochondria to the cytoplasm. None of these features of apoptosis was induced in control Rat-1 cells. p38 was also activated by cisplatin only in cells with deregulated expression of c-Myc, but, in contrast with all features of apoptosis, this activation was not affected by Bcl-2. Remarkably, overexpression of an interfering mutant of the p38α isoform, but not p38β, blocked cisplatin-induced Bax activation or cytochrome c release and nuclear fragmentation. Analysis of the kinase cascade upstream of p38 revealed a c-Myc-dependent activation by cisplatin of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (MKK) 3/6 and apoptosis signal-regulating kinase 1 (Ask1). Inhibition of Ask1 blocked p38 activation by cisplatin and all features of apoptosis. Several of these data were confirmed using other DNA-damaging agents. The findings indicated that c-Myc potentiation of the mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis results, at least in part, from a sensitization of Ask1 activation, allowing DNA-damaging agents to induce in cascade Ask1, p38α and Bax.

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