Background: EBV lytic cycle activators, such as phorbol esters, anti-immunoglobulin, transforming growth factor beta (TGFbeta), sodium butyrate, induce apoptosis in EBV-negative but not in EBV-positive Burkitt's lymphoma (BL) cells. To investigate the molecular mechanisms allowing EBV-infected cells to be protected, we examined the expression of viral and cellular antiapoptotic proteins as well as the activation of signal transduction pathways in BL-derived Raji cells exposed to lytic cycle inducing agents.
Results: Our data show that, following EBV activation, the latent membrane protein 1 (LMP1) and the cellular anti-apoptotic proteins MCL-1 and BCL-2 were quickly up-regulated and that Raji cells remained viable even when exposed simultaneously to P(BU)(2), sodium butyrate and TGFbeta. We report here that inhibition of p38 pathway, during EBV activation, led to a three fold increment of apoptosis and largely prevented lytic gene expression.
Conclusion: These findings indicate that, during the switch from the latent to the lytic phase of EBV infection, p38 MAPK phosphorylation plays a key role both for protecting the host cells from apoptosis as well as for inducing viral reactivation. Because Raji cells are defective for late antigens expression, we hypothesize that the increment of LMP1 gene expression in the early phases of EBV lytic cycle might contribute to the survival of the EBV-positive cells.