Bnip3 is a pro-apoptotic member of the Bcl-2 family that is down-regulated in pancreatic cancers, which correlates with resistance to chemotherapy and a worsened prognosis. In contrast, Bnip3 is up-regulated in heart failure and contributes to loss of myocardial cells during I/R (ischaemia/reperfusion). Bnip3 exerts its action at the mitochondria, but the mechanism by which Bnip3 mediates mitochondrial dysfunction is not clear. In the present study, we have identified Bax and Bak as downstream effectors of Bnip3-mediated mitochondrial dysfunction. Bnip3 plays a role in hypoxia-mediated cell death, but MEFs (mouse embryonic fibroblasts) derived from mice deficient in Bax and Bak were completely resistant to hypoxia even with substantial up-regulation of Bnip3. These cells were also resistant to Bnip3 overexpression, but re-expression of Bax or Bak restored susceptibility to Bnip3, suggesting that Bnip3 can act via either Bax or Bak. In contrast, Bnip3 overexpression in wild-type MEFs induced mitochondrial dysfunction with loss of membrane potential and release of cytochrome c. Cell death by Bnip3 was reduced in the presence of mPTP (mitochondrial permeability transition pore) inhibitors, but did not prevent Bnip3-mediated activation of Bax or Bak. Moreover, overexpression of Bnip3ΔTM, a dominant-negative form of Bnip3, reduced translocation of GFP (green fluorescent protein)–Bax to mitochondria during sI/R (simulated I/R) in HL-1 myocytes. Similarly, down-regulation of Bnip3 using RNA interference decreased activation of Bax in response to sI/R in HL-1 myocytes. These results suggest that Bnip3 mediates mitochondrial dysfunction through activation of Bax or Bak which is independent of mPTP opening.

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