Apoptosis has emerged as an important mechanism to reduce numbers of activated stellate cells during the resolution phase of hepatic fibrosis. These observations suggest that activated stellate cells may be more susceptible to apoptotic stimuli than their quiescent counterparts. Because other activated cell types are more sensitive than their quiescent phenotypes to apoptosis by tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL), we examined the expression of TRAIL death receptors (DRs) and susceptibility to TRAIL cytotoxicity in stellate cells undergoing progressive activation. A spontaneously immortalized human stellate cell line, LX-2, was analyzed during 14 days of progressive activation following plating, during which time α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) and a β-crystallin (markers of stellate cell activation) messenger RNA (mRNA) increased 7-fold and 5-fold, respectively. During this same interval, TRAIL-R1/DR4 and TRAIL-R2/DR5 mRNA expression increased 18-fold and 17.6-fold, although TRAIL-R2/DR5 expression was quantitatively 103-fold greater than TRAIL-R1/DR4; parallel changes occurred in TRAIL/DR5 protein expression and cellular susceptibility to TRAIL-mediated apoptosis. Similar findings were observed in primary murine stellate cells undergoing activation on a plastic surface. In conclusion, stellate cells show activation-dependent TRAIL-R2/DR5 expression and TRAIL-mediated apoptosis. Because TRAIL-R2/DR5 is not expressed by hepatocytes, TRAIL/DR5 agonists may be useful in reducing fibrosis by inducing stellate cell apoptosis.
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