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Abstract

Retinoid X receptor α (RXRα) has emerged as an important nuclear receptor involved in hepatocarcinogenesis, because its ligand suppresses the development of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in both experimental and clinical studies. We have demonstrated that phosphorylation of RXRα at serine 260 interferes with its function and delays its degradation in cultured human HCC, leading to enhanced cellular proliferation. Here, we show that in normal liver and in nonproliferating hepatocyte cultures, RXRα is unphosphorylated and highly ubiquitinated, rendering it sensitive to proteasome-mediated degradation. On the other hand, phosphoserine 260 RXRα is resistant to ubiquitination and proteasome-mediated degradation in both human HCC tissues and a human HCC cell line, HuH7. In these tissues and cells, serine 260 is phosphorylated by mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase. In proliferating normal hepatocytes, similar to HCC cells, RXRα is also phosphorylated at serine 260 and resistant to ubiquitin-mediated degradation by proteasome, but this ubiquitination of RXRα is differentially regulated between HCC cells and normal hepatocytes. In proliferating hepatocytes, 9-cis retinoic acid (9cRA), a ligand to RXRα, suppresses MAP kinase–mediated phosphorylation and thereby enhances ubiquitination of RXRα, whereas it fails to exert these effects in HCC cells. In conclusion, switching of the ubiquitin/proteasome-dependent degradation of RXRα by phosphorylation at serine 260 may be responsible for the aberrant growth of HCC and its suppression by retinoids.