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BACKGROUND: The ability to transfer immunoregulatory, cytoprotective, or anti-apoptotic genes into pancreatic islet cells may allow enhanced resistance against the autoimmune destruction of these cells in type 1 diabetes. We describe here an inducible transduction system for expression of the anti-apoptotic bcl-2 gene in insulin-producing cells as a potential tool for protecting against beta-cell death. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Isolated pancreatic rat islet cells or rat insulinoma (RINm5F) cells were transduced using a progesterone antagonist (RU 486) inducible adenoviral vector system, expressing the bcl-2 gene. Bcl-2 overexpression was measured by Western blot assays and flow cytometry analysis. Following exposure to cytokines or to the mitochondrial uncoupler FCCP, cell survival was determined using fluorescence and electron microscopy, and a colorimetric assay (2,3-bis[2-methoxy-4-nitro-5-sulfophenyl]- 2H-tetrazolium-5-carboxanilide [XTT]-based) for cell viability. The mitochondrial membrane potential ((m)) was assessed using the lipophilic cationic membrane potential-sensitive dye JC-1. RESULTS: The adenoviral gene transfer system induced Bcl-2 expression in more than 70% of beta-cells and the protein expression levels were successfully regulated in response to varying concentrations of progesterone antagonist RU 486. Exposure of islet cells to proinflammatory cytokines IL-1beta, TNF-alpha, and IFN-gamma, or to the mitochondrial uncoupler FCCP resulted in disruption of the mitochondrial membrane potential ((m)) and beta-cell death. Bcl-2 overexpression stabilized (m) and prevented cell death in RINm5F cells but not in islet cells. In addition, prolonged in vitro culture revealed adenoviral-induced islet cell necrosis. CONCLUSIONS: The RU 486-regulated adenoviral system can achieve an efficient control of gene transfer at relatively low doses of the adenoviral vector. However, Bcl-2 overexpression in islet cells did not prevent adenoviral- or cytokine-induced toxicity, suggesting that the specific death pathway involved in adenoviral toxicity in beta-cells may bypass the mitochondrial permeability transition event.