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BACKGROUND: Mutations in the ligand-binding domain of the thyroid hormone receptor beta (TR beta) gene cause the syndrome of resistance to thyroid hormone (RTH). The clinical phenotype results from the antagonism of the normal TR alpha and the non-mutated TR beta alleles by the TR beta 1 mutants, via a dominant negative effect. There is, however, marked heterogeneity of organ resistance within and among kindreds with RTH. This study examines the potential role of cell type in modulating the dominant negative potency of human TR beta 1 (h-TR beta 1) mutants. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Transient transfections were performed in HeLa and NIH3T3 cells, using a wild type (WT) and three naturally occurring mutant h-TR beta 1 constructs, and three natural thyroid hormone response elements (TREs). Immunocytochemistry was performed to detect levels of TR beta 1 expression in these two cell types. In order to determine how TR beta 1 interacts with other cellular partners, gel-shift analyses using HeLa and NIH3T3 nuclear extracts were performed. RESULTS: Transfection studies using WT h-TR beta 1 in HeLa and NIH3T3 cells, showed that the 3,3',5-triiodothyronine (T3)-induced transactivation of the different TREs varied between cell types. Unlike the non-T3-binding h-TR beta 1 mutant, PV, mutants ED and OK displayed the expected T3-induced dose responsiveness in these two cell types. For each TRE examined, the magnitude of the dominant negative effect varied between the cell types. The levels of receptor expression in HeLa and NIH3T3 cells were identical, as determined by immunocytochemistry. Gel-shift analyses showed differences in the formation of hetero- and homodimers depending on both the cell type and TRE motif. CONCLUSIONS: The cell type in which a mutant receptor operates affects the relative amounts of hetero- and homodimers. Together with the nature of the mutation and the TRE-motif, this could modulate the dominant negative action of mutant receptors in different tissues, which, in turn, could contribute to the variable phenotypic characteristics of RTH.