Cytotoxic lymphocytes eliminate infected cells and tumours via the perforin-mediated delivery of pro-apoptotic serine proteases known as granzymes. Granzyme B triggers apoptosis via the cleavage of a repertoire of cellular proteins, leading to caspase activation and mitochondrial depolarization. A simple bioinformatics strategy identified a candidate granzyme B cleavage site in the widely expressed BNIP-2 (BCL2/adenovirus E1B-19K protein-interacting protein 2). Granzyme B cleaved recombinant BNIP-2 in vitro and endogenous BNIP-2 was cleaved during the NK (natural killer) cell-mediated killing of tumour cells. Cleavage required the site identified in the bioinformatics screen and was caspase-independent. Expression of either full-length BNIP-2 or a truncated molecule mimicking the granzyme B cleaved form was pro-apoptotic and led to the caspase-dependent cleavage of BNIP-2 at a site distinct from granzyme B cleavage. Inhibition of BNIP-2 expression did not affect the susceptibility to NK cell-mediated killing. Furthermore, target cells in which BID (BH3-interacting domain death agonist) expression was inhibited also remained highly susceptible to NK cell-mediated killing, revealing redundancy in the pro-apoptotic response to human cytotoxic lymphocytes. Such redundancy reduces the opportunity for escape from apoptosis induction and maximizes the chances of immune-mediated clearance of infected cells or tumour cells.

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