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Abstract

Programmed cell death is an active process wherein the cell initiates a sequence of events culminating in the fragmentation of its DNA, nuclear collapse, and disintegration of the cell into small, membrane-bound apoptotic bodies. Examination of the death program in various models has shown common themes, including a rise in cytoplasmic calcium, cytoskeletal changes, and redistribution of membrane lipids. The calcium-dependent neutral protease calpain has putative roles in cytoskeletal and membrane changes in other cellular processes; this fact led us to test the role of calpain in a well-known model of apoptotic cell death, that of thymocytes after treatment with dexamethasone. Assays for calcium-dependent proteolysis in thymocyte extracts reveal a rise in activity with a peak at about 1 hr of incubation with dexamethasone, falling to background at approximately 2 hr. Western blots indicate autolytic cleavage of the proenzyme precursor to the calpain I isozyme, providing additional evidence for calpain activation. We have also found that apoptosis in thymocytes, whether induced by dexamethasone or by low-level irradiation, is blocked by specific inhibitors of calpain. Apoptosis of metamyelocytes incubated with cycloheximide is also blocked by calpain inhibitors. These studies suggest a required role for calpain in both “induction” and “release” models of apoptotic cell death. © 1994 wiley-Liss, Inc.