Lymphocytes are primordial immune cells with variable life times. Besides genetic programming, extracellular factors interacting with cell surface receptors might alter cell survival. We investigated whether the activity of the membrane-embedded Na,K-ATPase (EC or sodium pump (NKA) plays a role for cell survival since this ubiquitous system establishes the vital transmembrane Na and K gradients as well as the resulting high intracellular K/Na ratio required for macromolecule synthesis; furthermore, the system exposes an extracellular inhibitory receptors for cardioactive steroids and palytoxin. Isolated human lymphocytes were incubated in vitro and their viability assessed by exclusion of trypan blue. Various incubation conditions were compared; in RPMI-1640 medium cell viability was preserved for 30 h at 37 °C. Externally added ouabain, a hydrophilic cardioactive steroid, blocked the [86Rb]potassium uptake at nanomolar concentrations. Despite pump inhibition ouabain did not alter lymphocyte survival, even at 10 mM for 30 h. By contrast, the hydrophilic toxin palytoxin, the most potent animal poison described so far, killed all cells within 2 h at 10 nM; this toxin is known to act via the sodium pump and to provoke deadly cation-leaks by unmasking a channel component. Intracellular Na increased and K decreased as measured by atomic absorption spectrometry in presence of palytoxin; cell swelling was seen by electron microscopy. Ouabain protected the cells from the toxic effect of palytoxin. The results reveal a pivotal role of NKA integrity for lymphocyte survival.

Abbreviations: BCA, bicinchonic acid; D-PBS, Dulbecco's Phosphate Buffered Saline; HBSS, Hanks' Balanced Salt Solution; PYX, palytoxin (used in figures only); NKA, Na,K-ATPase

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