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BACKGROUND: The induction of phase 2 enzymes by dithiolethiones such as oltipraz is an effective means for achieving protection against environmental carcinogens in animals and humans. Transcriptional control of the expression of at least some of these protective enzymes is mediated through the antioxidant response element (ARE) found in the upstream regulatory region of many phase 2 genes. The transcription factor Nrf2, which binds to the ARE, appears to be essential for the induction of proto-typical phase 2 enzymes such as glutathione S-transferase (GST) Ya, Yp, and NAD(P)H: quinone reductase (NQO1) in vivo. MATERIALS AND METHODS: In the present study, 3H-1,2-dithiole-3-thione (D3T) was used as a potent model inducer whose effects on gene expression and chemopreventive efficacy have been extensively characterized in the rat. Over a dozen putative D3T-inducible genes were examined in wild-type and nrf2-disrupted mice by Northern blot hybridization and reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) analysis to elucidate whether loss of Nrf2 function also affects the induction of a broader representation of phase 2 and antioxidative enzymes. The effects of D3T on hepatic Nrf2 expression and localization were also examined in vivo by Northern blot hybridization, electromobility shift assay, and Western blot analysis. RESULTS: Specific activities of hepatic GST and NQO1 were increased by D3T in wild-type mice and were largely blunted in the nrf2-deficient mice. However, changes in levels of RNA transcripts following D3T treatment of nrf2-disrupted mice were multidirectional, dependent upon the particular gene examined. Although elevation of mRNAs for GST Ya, NQO1, microsomal epoxide hydrolase and gamma-glutamylcysteine synthetase regulatory chain were blocked in the mutant mice, elevation of GST Yp mRNA was largely unimpeded. Increases in levels of mRNA for the heavy and light chains of ferritin were only seen in the nrf2-disrupted mice. Transcript levels of UDP-glucuronyl-transferase 1A6, heme oxygenase-1, maganese superoxide dismutase, which were inducible in the wild-type mice, actually decreased in the mutant mice, whereas levels of mRNA for GST Yc, aflatoxin B1 aldehyde reductase and catalase decreased following D3T treatment in the mutant mice in the absence of any inductive effect by D3T in the wild-type mice. In wild-type mice, treatment with D3T lead to 3-fold increases in hepatic Nrf2 mRNA levels within several hours following dosing as assessed by Northern blot and RT-PCR analyses. Gel shift analyses with oligonucleotide probes for human NQO1 ARE, murine GST Ya ARE, and erythroid transcription factor (NF-E2) binding site showed increased intensity of binding with nuclear extracts prepared from livers of D3T-treated mice compared to vehicle-treated controls. Antibody to Nrf2 supershifted the DNA binding bands of these nuclear extracts. Moreover, immunoblot analysis indicated accumulation of Nrf2 in extracts prepared from hepatic nuclei of D3T-treated mice at the same time points. CONCLUSIONS: Nrf2 plays a central role in the regulation of constitutive and inducible expression of multiple phase 2 and antioxidative enzymes by chemoprotective dithiolethiones in vivo, although patterns of response vary among different genes. Knowledge of the factors controlling the specificity of actions of enzyme inducers will be exceedingly helpful in the design and isolation of more efficient and selective chemoprotective agents.