Background: Urokinase (uPA) and the urokinase receptor (uPAR) form a multifunctional system capable of concurrently regulating pericellular proteolysis, cell-surface adhesion, and mitogenesis. The role of uPA and uPAR in directed proteolysis is well established and its function in cellular adhesiveness has recently been clarified by numerous studies. The molecular mechanisms underlying the mitogenic effects of uPA and uPAR are still unclear, however.
Results: We identified mechanisms that might participate in uPA-related mitogenesis in human vascular smooth muscle cells and demonstrated that uPA induces activation of a unique signaling complex. This complex contains uPAR and two additional proteins, nucleolin and casein kinase 2, which are implicated in cell proliferation. Both proteins were isolated by affinity chromatography on uPA-conjugated cyanogen-bromide-activated Sepharose 4B and were identified using nano-electrospray mass spectrometry and immunoblotting. We used laser scanning and immunoelectron microscopy studies to further demonstrate that nucleolin and casein kinase 2 are located on the cell surface where they colocalize with the uPAR. Moreover, the proteins were co-internalized into the cell as an entire complex. Immunoprecipitation experiments in combination with an in vitro kinase assay demonstrated a specific association of uPAR with nucleolin and casein kinase 2 and revealed a uPA-induced activation of casein kinase 2, which presumably led to phosphorylation of nucleolin. Blockade of nucleolin and casein kinase 2 with specific modulators led to the inhibition of uPA-induced cell proliferation.
Conclusions: We conclude that in human vascular smooth muscle cells, uPA induces the formation and activation of a newly identified signaling complex comprising uPAR, nucleolin, and casein kinase 2, that is responsible for the uPA-related mitogenic response. The complex is not a unique feature of vascular smooth muscle cells, as it was also found in other uPAR-expressing cell types.