Muscular dystrophies are a group of genetic diseases that lead to muscle wasting and, in most cases, premature death. Cytokines and inflammatory factors are released during the disease process where they promote deleterious signaling events that directly participate in myofiber death. Here, we show that p38α, a kinase in the greater mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK)-signaling network, serves as a nodal regulator of disease signaling in dystrophic muscle. Deletion of Mapk14 (p38α-encoding gene) in the skeletal muscle of mdx- (lacking dystrophin) or sgcd- (δ-sarcoglycan-encoding gene) null mice resulted in a significant reduction in pathology up to 6 months of age. We also generated MAPK kinase 6 (MKK6) muscle-specific transgenic mice to model heightened p38α disease signaling that occurs in dystrophic muscle, which resulted in severe myofiber necrosis and many hallmarks of muscular dystrophy. Mechanistically, we show that p38α directly induces myofiber death through a mitochondrial-dependent pathway involving direct phosphorylation and activation of the pro-death Bcl-2 family member Bax. Indeed, muscle-specific deletion of Bax, but not the apoptosis regulatory gene Tp53 (encoding p53), significantly reduced dystrophic pathology in the muscles of MKK6 transgenic mice. Moreover, use of a p38 MAPK pharmacologic inhibitor reduced dystrophic disease in Sgcd(-/-) mice suggesting a future therapeutic approach to delay disease.
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