Transcription factor NF-E2-related factor 2 (NRF2) plays a crucial role in the cellular defense against oxidative/electrophilic stress by up-regulating multiple antioxidant genes. Numerous studies with genetically modified animals have demonstrated that Nrf2 is a sensitivity determining factor upon the exposure to environmental chemicals including carcinogens. Moreover, recent studies have demonstrated that polymorphism in the human NRF2 promoter is associated with higher risks for developing acute lung injury, gastric mucosal inflammation, and nephritis. Therefore, the identification of reliable and effective human target genes of NRF2 may allow the monitoring of NRF2 activity and to predict individual sensitivity to environmental stress-induced damage. For this purpose, we investigated genes that are tightly controlled by NRF2 to establish markers for NRF2 activity in human cells. Firstly, in the normal human renal epithelial HK-2 cells, the measurement of the expression of 30 previously reported NRF2 target genes in response to NRF2 inducers (sulforaphane, tert-butylhydroquinone, cinnamic aldehyde, and hydrogen peroxide) showed that the aldo-keto reductase (AKR) 1C1 is highly inducible by all treatments. Accordantly, the basal and inducible expressions of AKRs were significantly attenuated in NRF2-silenced HK-2 cells. Whereas, cells with stable KEAP1 knockdown, which causes a modest NRF2 activation, demonstrated substantially increased levels of AKR1A1, 1B1, 1B10, 1C1, 1C2, and 1C3. Secondly, the linkage between NRF2 and the AKRs was confirmed in human monocytic leukemia cell line U937, which can be a model of peripherally available blood cells. The treatment of U937 cells with NRF2 inducers including sulforaphane effectively elevated the expression of AKR1B1, 1B10, 1C1, 1C2, and 1C3. Whereas, the levels of both the basal and sulforaphane-inducible expression of AKR1C1 were significantly reduced in NRF2-silenced stable U937 cells compared to the control cells. Similarly, the inducible expression of AKR1C1 was observed in another human monocytic leukemia cell line THP-1 as well as in human primary blood CD14(+) monocytes. In conclusion, together with the high inducibility and NRF2 dependency shown in renal epithelial cells as well as in peripherally available blood cells, current findings suggest that AKRs can be utilized as a marker of NRF2 activity in human cells.
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