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Abstract

c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK) is a member of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) superfamily. The activation of JNK is mediated by sequential protein phosphorylation through a MAPK module, namely, MAPK kinase kinase (MAP3K or MEKK) [RIGHTWARDS ARROW] MAPK kinase (MAP2K or MKK) [RIGHTWARDS ARROW] MAPK. Elevated levels of JNK activity have been frequently observed in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and have been demonstrated to contribute to HCC growth by promoting HCC cell proliferation and resistance to tumor necrosis factor–related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL)- or Fas-mediated apoptosis. Chronic inflammation contributes to the up-regulation of JNK activity in HCC. However, it remains unknown whether aberrant JNK activity also results from some cell intrinsic defect(s). Here, we show that receptor for activated C kinase 1 (RACK1), an adaptor protein implicated in the regulation of multiple signaling pathways, could engage in a direct interaction with MKK7, the JNK-specific MAP2K, in human HCC cells. Levels of RACK1 protein show correlation with the activity of the JNK pathway in human HCC tissues and cell lines. RACK1 loss-of-function or gain-of-function analyses indicate that RACK1 enhances MKK7/JNK activity in human HCC cells. Further exploration reveals that the interaction of RACK1 with MKK7 is required for the enhancement of MKK7/JNK activity by RACK1. RACK1/MKK7 interaction facilitates the association of MKK7 with MAP3Ks, thereby enhancing MKK7 activity and promoting in vitro HCC cell proliferation and resistance to TRAIL- or Fas-mediated apoptosis as well as in vivo tumor growth. Conclusion: Overexpressed RACK1 augments JNK activity and thereby promotes HCC growth through directly binding to MKK7 and enhancing MKK7 activity. (HEPATOLOGY 2013)