The p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway and its role in interferon signaling

Pharmacol Ther. 2003 May;98(2):129-42. doi: 10.1016/s0163-7258(03)00016-0.


Interferons (IFNs) are pleiotropic cytokines that exhibit multiple biological effects on cells and tissues. IFN receptors are expressed widely in mammalian cells and virtually all different cell types express them on their surface. The Type I IFN receptor has a multichain structure, composed of at least two distinct receptor subunits, IFNalphaR1 and IFNalphaR2. Two Jak-kinases, Tyk-2 and Jak-1, associate with the different receptor subunits and are activated in response to IFNalpha or IFNbeta to regulate engagement of multiple downstream signaling cascades. These include the Stat-pathway, whose function is essential for transcriptional activation of IFN-sensitive genes, and the insulin receptor substrate pathway, which regulates downstream activation of the phosphatidyl-inositol-3' kinase. Members of the Map family of kinases are also activated by the Type I IFN receptor and participate in the generation of IFN signals. The p38 Map kinase pathway appears to play a very important role in the induction of IFN responses. p38 is rapidly activated during engagement of the Type I IFN receptor, and such an activation is regulated by the small G-protein Rac1, which functions as its upstream effector in a tyrosine kinase-dependent manner. The activated form of p38 regulates downstream activation of other serine kinases, notably MapKapK-2 and MapKapK-3, indicating the existence of Type I IFN-dependent signaling cascades activated downstream of p38. Extensive studies have shown that p38 plays a critical role in Type I IFN-dependent transcriptional regulation, without modifying activation of the Stat-pathway. It is now well established that the function of p38 is essential for gene transcription via ISRE or GAS elements, but has no effects on the phosphorylation of Stat-proteins, the formation of Stat-complexes, and their binding to the promoters of IFN-sensitive genes. As Type I IFNs regulate gene expression for proteins with antiviral properties, it is not surprising that pharmacological inhibition of the p38 pathway blocks induction of IFNalpha-antiviral responses. In addition, pharmacological inhibition of p38 abrogates the suppressive effects of Type I IFNs on normal human hematopoietic progenitors, indicating a critical role for this signaling cascade in the induction of the regulatory effects of Type I IFNs on hematopoiesis. p38 is also activated during IFNalpha-treatment of primary leukemia cells from patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Such activation is required for IFNalpha-dependent suppression of leukemic cell progenitor growth, indicating that this pathway plays a critical role in the induction of the antileukemic effects of IFNalpha.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Hematopoiesis
  • Humans
  • Interferons / pharmacology*
  • Leukemia, Myelogenous, Chronic, BCR-ABL Positive / drug therapy
  • Leukemia, Myelogenous, Chronic, BCR-ABL Positive / physiopathology
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / pharmacology*
  • Receptors, Interferon / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Up-Regulation
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases


  • Receptors, Interferon
  • Interferons
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases