The activation of CD81 [the portal of entry of hepatitis C virus (HCV)] by agonistic antibody results in phosphorylation of Ezrin via Syk kinase and is associated with inactivation of the Hippo pathway and increase in yes-associated protein (Yap1). The opposite occurs when glypican-3 or E2 protein of HCV binds to CD81. Hepatocyte-specific glypican-3 transgenic mice have decreased levels of phosphorylated (p)-Ezrin (Thr567) and Yap, increased Hippo activity, and suppressed liver regeneration. The role of Ezrin in these processes has been speculated, but not proved. We show that Ezrin has a direct role in the regulation of Hippo pathway and Yap. Forced expression of plasmids expressing mutant Ezrin (T567D) that mimics p-Ezrin (Thr567) suppressed Hippo activity and activated Yap signaling in hepatocytes in vivo and enhanced activation of pathways of β-catenin and leucine rich repeat containing G protein-coupled receptor 4 (LGR4) and LGR5 receptors. Hepatoma cell lines JM1 and JM2 have decreased CD81 expression and Hippo activity and up-regulated p-Ezrin (T567). NSC668394, a p-Ezrin (Thr567) antagonist, significantly decreased hepatoma cell proliferation. We additionally show that p-Ezrin (T567) is controlled by epidermal growth factor receptor and MET. Ezrin phosphorylation, mediated by CD81-associated Syk kinase, is directly involved in regulation of Hippo pathway, Yap levels, and growth of normal and neoplastic hepatocytes. The finding has mechanistic and potentially therapeutic applications in hepatocyte growth biology, hepatocellular carcinoma, and HCV pathogenesis.
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