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Carcinogenesis. 2013 June; 34(6): 1208–1215.
Published online 2013 February 6. doi:  10.1093/carcin/bgt043
PMCID: PMC3670254

Regulation of proteolytic cleavage of retinoid X receptor-α by GSK-3β


We recently reported that an N-terminally truncated retinoid X receptor-α (tRXRα) produced in cancer cells acts to promote cancer cell growth and survival through AKT activation. However, how RXRα is cleaved and how the cleavage is regulated in cancer cells remain undefined. In this study, we demonstrated that calpain II could cleave RXRα protein in vitro, generating two truncated RXRα products. The cleavage sites in RXRα were mapped by Edman N-terminal sequencing to Gly90↓Ser91 and Lys118↓Val119. Transfection of the resulting cleavage product RXRα/[increment]90, but not RXRα/[increment]118, resulted in activation of AKT in cancer cells, similar to the effect of tRXRα. In support of the role of calpain II in cancer cells, transfection of calpain II expression vector or its activation by ionomycin enhanced the production of tRXRα, whereas treatment of cells with calpain inhibitors reduced the levels of tRXRα. Co-immunoprecipitation assays also showed an interaction between calpain II and RXRα. In studying the regulation of tRXRα production, we observed that treatment of cells with lithium chloride or knockdown of glycogen synthase kinase-3β (GSK-3β) significantly increased the production of tRXRα. Conversely, overexpression of GSK-3β reduced tRXRα expression. Furthermore, we found that the inhibitory effect of GSK-3β on tRXRα production was due to its suppression of calpain II expression. Taken together, our data demonstrate that GSK-3β plays an important role in regulating tRXRα production by calpain II in cancer cells, providing new insights into the development of new strategies and agents for the prevention and treatment of tRXRα-related cancers.


Retinoid X receptor α (RXRα), a unique member of the nuclear receptor superfamily (1), has pleiotropic functions ranging from cell proliferation to apoptosis through its action in both nucleus and cytoplasm (2,3). Like other nuclear receptors, RXRα consists of three main functional domains: (i) the non-conserved N-terminal A/B domain with an autonomous ligand-independent transcriptional activation function, (ii) the central DNA-binding domain responsible for DNA binding and (iii) the multifunctional C-terminal ligand-binding domain containing regions for receptor dimerization, ligand-binding and ligand-dependent transactivation (4). As a nuclear receptor, RXRα forms homodimers or heterodimers with other nuclear receptors to bind to its cognate sequence in the promoters of target genes, leading to the activation or suppression of target gene transcription (4). Recently, the cytoplasmic localization of RXRα and its non-genomic functions have been extensively studied (3). In PC12 pheochromocytoma cells, RXRα together with Nur77 migrate from the nucleus to the cytoplasm in response to nerve growth factor, a process that is critical for nerve growth factor-induced PC12 cell differentiation (5). We also found that apoptotic stimuli such as retinoid-derived molecules induce nuclear export of RXRα and Nur77, which then interact with Bcl-2, resulting in Bcl-2 transformation from an apoptosis inhibitor to a promoter (68). Cytoplasmic localization of RXRα has been also implicated in inflammation (9).

Regulated proteolysis is a key step in a number of different signaling pathways that respond to developmental cues or external stimuli (10). We recently reported that an N-terminally truncated RXRα (tRXRα) resulted from proteolytic cleavage of RXRα was detected in different types of cancer cells and tumor tissues, but not in the corresponding normal tissues (11). Unlike the full-length RXRα known to predominantly reside in the nucleus, tRXRα is localized mainly in the cytoplasm, where it interacts with the p85α regulatory subunit of phosphatidylinositol-3-OH kinase (PI3K), leading to activation of the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway and cancer cell growth in vitro and in animals (11,12). Thus, tRXRα acquires tumor-promoting function, which is different from the full-length RXRα. However, how RXRα is cleaved and how tRXRα production are regulated in cancer cells remains largely unknown.

Calpains are a large family of Ca2+-activated proteases involved in the regulation of cell adhesion, migration and death through the limited proteolysis of specific target proteins (13). The most well-characterized calpain isoforms are calpain I (µ-calpain) and calpain II (m-calpain), which are heterodimeric proteases composed of a 80kDa catalytic subunit and a 30kDa common regulatory subunit calpain 4 (14). The ubiquitously expressed protein calpastatin is an endogenous inhibitor of calpains (14). In addition, various kinases including mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinase 1/extracellular signal-regulated kinase and protein kinase A regulate calpain activity by phosphorylation (1517). Calpain has been shown to account for limited proteolytic cleavage of several nuclear receptors. Cleavage of the androgen receptor (AR) by calpain II produces a truncated receptor that acts as a ligand-insensitive, constitutively active transcription factor, which may play a role in the development of androgen-independent prostate cancer (18,19). Calpain II also cleaves RXRα, suggesting its role in controlling the functions and activities of RXRα (20). However, whether calpain II cleavage of RXRα leads to production of tRXRα capable of activating AKT is currently unknown.

Glycogen synthase kinase-3β (GSK-3β) is a highly conserved serine/threonine protein kinase ubiquitously distributed in eukaryotes and plays a central role in many cellular functions by phosphorylating numerous target proteins (21). Unlike most kinases, GSK-3β is active in resting cells, and stimulation of cells by mitogens or growth factors leads to its inactivation (22). The activity of GSK-3β is regulated by phosphorylations, of which the Tyr216 phosphorylation enhances GSK-3β activity, whereas the Ser9 phosphorylation inhibits its activity (23). Dysfunction of GSK-3β leads to many diseases including cancers (22,24).

In this study, we investigated the role and regulation of calpain II in the production of tRXRα and tRXRα-mediated AKT activation. We report that calpain II could cleave RXRα at its N-terminal A/B region in vitro and in vivo. We also found that one of the resulting tRXRα products, which lack 90 N-terminal amino acids, could activate AKT when overexpressed in cancer cells. Furthermore, we showed that GSK-3β is a negative regulator of tRXRα production through its ability to inhibit calpain II expression.

Materials and methods

Antibodies and reagents

Mouse monoclonal anti-Flag and anti-β-actin antibodies and lithium chloride (LiCl; Sigma–Aldrich), rabbit polyclonal anti-RXRα antibodies (D20 and [increment]N197) and mouse monoclonal anti-Myc and anti-GFP antibodies (Santa Cruz Biotechnology), rabbit polyclonal anti-calpain II and anti-pAKT antibodies (Cell Signaling Technology), rabbit monoclonal anti-GSK-3β (phopho S9) and anti-glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate dehydrogenase antibodies (Abcam), mouse monoclonal anti-GSK-3β antibody (BD Biosciences), Lipofectamine 2000 transfection regent (Invitrogen), calpeptin (Millipore) and recombinant calpain II and ionomycin (Calbiochem) were used in this study.

Cell culture

HEK293T human embryonic kidney cells, Raw264.7 mouse monocyte macrophage, HaCat human skin keratinocyte cells, HepG2 human hepatocellular carcinoma cells and MCF-7 human breast adenocarcinoma cells were cultured in Dulbecco’s modified Eagle’s medium supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum. PC3 human prostate cancer cells, SW480 human colon cancer cells and QGY-7701 human hepatocellular carcinoma cells were maintained in RPMI 1640 medium supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum.


Calcium–phosphate precipitation and Lipofectamine 2000 were used to transfect cells as described previously (11,25). Calcium–phosphate precipitation was used to transfect DNA into HEK293T cells. Briefly, cells were seeded in six-well plates 24h before transfection. Plasmids (1 µg) in 50 µl of 0.25M CaCl2 was mixed with 50 µl of 2× N,N-bis[2-hydroxyethyl] -2-aminoethanesulfonic acid-buffered saline (50mM BES, 280mM NaCl, 1.5mM Na2HPO4·2H2O, pH 7.0), and the mixture solution was allowed to stand for 5min at room temperature. The mixture was added to the medium and incubated for 12h. Other cell lines were transfected by Lipofectamine 2000 according to the manufacturer’s instruction. Briefly, Lipofectamine 2000 transfection reagent was mixed with DNA diluted in Opti-MEM I Reduced Serum Medium. After 20min incubation at room temperature, the complexes were applied to cells and incubated for 24–36h.

Western blotting

The experiments were performed as described previously (25). Cell lysates were boiled in sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) sample loading buffer, resolved by 10% SDS–polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS–PAGE) and transferred to nitrocellulose. The membranes were blocked in 5% milk in Tris-buffered saline and Tween 20 (TBST; 10mM Tris–HCl [pH 8.0], 150mM NaCl, 0.05% Tween 20) for 1h at room temperature. After washing twice with TBST, the membranes were incubated with appropriate primary antibodies in TBST for 1h and then washed twice, probed with horseradish peroxide-linked anti-immunoglobulin for 1h at room temperature. After three washes with TBST, immunoreactive products were visualized using enhanced chemiluminescence reagents and autoradiography.


Cells were harvested in lysis buffer (10mM Tris [pH 7.4], 150mM NaCl, 1% Triton X-100, 5mM ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, containing protease inhibitors). Lysate was incubated with 1 µg antibody at 4°C for 2h. Immunocomplexes were then precipitated with 30 µl of protein A/G-sepharose. After an extensive washing with lysis buffer, the beads were boiled in SDS sample loading buffer and assessed by western blotting (WB).

In vitro proteolysis assay

Purified glutathione-S-transferase (GST)-RXRα protein was incubated with 10ng/µl recombinant rat calpain II in a reaction buffer containing 20mM N-2-hydroxyethylpiperazine-N′-2-ethanesulfonic acid (pH 7.5), 5mM CaCl2, 50mM KCl, 2mM MgCl2 and 1mM dithiothreitol at 30°C for 30min in the presence or absence of 10 µM calpeptin. The reactions were stopped by an addition of SDS–PAGE sample loading buffer, and the reaction mixtures were then loaded on a 10% SDS–PAGE gel. The cleaved fragments of RXRα were examined by Coomassie Blue staining and WB.

Edman N-terminal sequencing

N-terminal Edman sequencing was performed on an ABI Procise 492 protein sequencer using standard procedure. GST-RXRα fragments generated by calpain II cleavage in vitro were resolved by 10% SDS–PAGE gel, followed by electroblotting to a polyvinylidene difluoride membrane. The membrane was stained with GelCode Blue Stain Reagent (Thermo Scientific), and the two bands were cut and subjected to Edman degradation.

RNA interference

Small interfering RNA (siRNA; 50 pmol) was transfected into cells grown in 12-well plate using Lipofectamine 2000 reagent according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Briefly, 1 day before transfection, cells were plated in 12-well plates at appropriate concentration in order to reach 30–50% confluent at the time of transfection. Lipofectamine 2000 (2.5µ l) and siRNA (50 pmol) were gently mixed with 125 µl Opti-MEM I Reduced Serum Medium, respectively, and in 5min, the diluted siRNA and Lipofectamine 2000 were combined and mixed thoroughly. After 20min of incubation, the siRNA/Lipofectamine complexes were applied to cells for transfection. Cells were treated with LiCl for 36h and then harvested for immunoblotting assay. The siRNA sequences (Sigma) against human GSK-3β and non-targeting sequence were as follows: GUAUUGCAGGACAAGAGAUdTdT and UUCUCCGAACGUGUCACGUTT.


Calpain II cleaves RXRα in vitro

To determine whether calpain II could cleave RXRα to generate tRXRα known to activate the AKT signaling pathway (11), we performed the in vitro protease assay by using purified GST-RXRα fusion protein. Two anti-RXRα antibodies, D20 and [increment]N197, were used for this study (Figure 1A). The D20 anti-RXRα antibody recognizes the N-terminal 2–20 amino acids of RXRα, whereas the [increment]N197 anti-RXRα antibody recognizes the C-terminal 198–462 sequence of RXRα. As tRXRα, which activates the PI3K/AKT pathway, is a C-terminal RXRα product, it could be detected by [increment]N197, but not by D20 anti-RXRα antibody (11). Figure 1A showed that [increment]N197, but not D20 anti-RXRα antibody, recognized tRXRα produced in PC3 prostate cancer cells, confirming the specificity of the antibodies. When GST-RXRα purified from Escherichia coli, with molecular weight of ~80kDa, was incubated with recombinant calpain II, it was cleaved, generating two proteolytic fragments with the apparent molecular weight of ~47 and ~45kDa, as revealed by SDS–PAGE and Coomassie Blue staining (Figure 1B). Because the fragments were recognized by [increment]N197, but not D20 anti-RXRα antibody (Figure 1C), they likely represented tRXRα lacking N-terminal sequences. The cleavage of GST-RXRα by calpain II was specific as its effect was completely inhibited by calpeptin, the selective calpain II inhibitor (Figure 1C). These results are consistent with previous observation (20), demonstrating that calpain II is capable of cleaving RXRα at its N-terminal region.

Fig. 1.
Proteolytic cleavage of RXRα by calpain II in vitro. (A) Recognition of tRXRα by [increment]N197, but not D20 anti-RXRα antibody. PC3 cell lysate was IP using D20 or [increment]N197 antibody, and IP proteins were analyzed by WB using ...

To determine the cleavage sites of calpain II, two calpain II-generated proteolytic products of RXRα were purified. Edman N-terminal sequencing analysis revealed two peptide sequences of SPQLS and VPAHP, which correspond to two cleavage sites STG90↓S91PQLS and VLK118↓V119PAHP in RXRα, respectively (Figure 1D). Although there is no consensus sequence for calpain cleavage sites, there are residue preferences around the cleavage sites from P4′ to P7′ (26), of which the preferred residues at the P2 position are Leu, Thr and Val, and the P1 position are Lys, Tyr and Arg as well as the P1′ position are Ser, Thr and Ala. The sequences surrounding the cleavage sites of calpain II in RXRα partially follow the rule, with Thr89 and Leu117 meeting with the P2 preferences, Lys118 meeting with the P1 preferences and Ser91 meeting with the P1′ preferences (Figure 1D).

To study whether calpain II-cleaved RXRα fragments, RXRα/[increment]90 and RXRα/[increment]118, could activate the AKT signaling pathway, the corresponding tRXRα complementary DNAs were cloned into an expression vector containing Myc epitope and transfected into HEK293T cells. Immunoblotting demonstrated that transfection of RXRα/[increment]90, but not RXRα/[increment]118, resulted in enhanced expression of phospho-AKT, but not total AKT (Figure 1E). Thus, RXRα/[increment]90 could activate AKT in cells, suggesting that calpain II cleavage of RXRα contributes to production of tRXRα for regulating AKT signaling pathway.

Regulation of tRXRα production by calpain II in cells

To study the role of calpain II in tRXRα production in cells, we determined whether altered expression of calpain II could regulate tRXRα production. The level of tRXRα was undetectable in HEK293T cells under conditions used. However, transfection of calpain II strongly enhanced tRXRα expression (Figure 2A). In HepG2 hepatocellular carcinoma cells, transfection of calpain II expression vector also dose dependently increased the level of tRXRα protein (Figure 2B). Thus, tRXRα production is correlated with calpain II expression. We next examined the effect of calpain II activation on tRXRα production. The calcium ionophore ionomycin is known to activate endogenous calpain by raising the intracellular level of calcium (27,28). Treatment of cancer cells with ionomycin led to an increase of endogenous tRXRα level in a dose-dependent manner (Figure 2C). Proteolytic cleavage of transfected RXRα was also enhanced by ionomycin (Figure 2D). The production of tRXRα was inhibited by transfection of calpastatin, the endogenous calpain II inhibitor (14) (Figure 2E), and by treatment of cells with the selective calpain II inhibitor calpeptin (Figure 2F). Thus, the expression and activation of calpain II play an important role in tRXRα production in cancer cells.

Fig. 2.
Calpain II induces tRXRα productions in cancer cells. (A) Calpain II transfection induces tRXRα expression. HEK293T cells were transfected with a Myc-calpain II expression vector, and cell lysates were analyzed by WB using the indicated ...

To further study the role of calpain II, we examined whether there was an interaction between calpain II and RXRα by co-immunoprecipitation assays. Thus, Flag-RXRα expression vector was co-transfected with Myc-calpain I or Myc-calpain II expression vectors into HepG2 cells. Flag-RXRα was immunoprecipitated (IP) by anti-Flag antibody, and its interaction with calpain I or calpain II was examined by immunoblotting using anti-Myc antibody. Our co-immunoprecipitation assays showed that Myc-calpain II, but not Myc-calpain I, could interact with Flag-RXRα (Figure 3A). Conversely, transfected GFP-RXRα was co-immunoprecipitated by anti-Myc antibody when it was co-transfected with Myc-calpain II into HEK293T cells (Figure 3B). Transfection of RXRα expression vector into PC3 cells also resulted in its co-immunoprecipitation of endogenous calpain II (Figure 3C). Together, these results demonstrate that calpain II interacts with RXRα, further supporting its role in RXRα cleavage and tRXRα production.

Fig. 3.
Interaction of calpain II with RXRα. (A) HepG2 cells were transfected with Flag-RXRα expression vector alone or together with Myc-calpain I or Myc-calpain II expression vector for 36h. Cell lysates prepared were IP by anti-Flag antibody, ...

GSK-3β negatively regulates tRXRα production

In studying the regulation of tRXRα production in cancer cells, we evaluated the effect of chemical inhibitors of several protein kinases including Jun N-terminal kinase, extracellular signal-regulated kinase, p38, PI3K and GSK-3β. Our results showed that LiCl, an inhibitor of GSK-3β (29), could upregulate tRXRα productions. In HepG2 cells, the level of tRXRα protein gradually increased with the treatment of 20mM LiCl in a time-dependent manner, with the highest tRXRα level occurring at 24h post-treatment (Figure 4A). The optimal concentration of LiCl required for induction of tRXRα production was about 20mM (Figure 4B), which is the concentration widely used for inhibiting GSK-3β (30,31). This inducing effect of LiCl on tRXRα production was also observed in QGY-7701 liver cancer cells (Figure 4C) and several other cancer cell lines including HaCat keratinocytes, MCF-7 breast cancer and SW480 colon cancer cells (Figure 4D). As expected, exposure of cancer cells to LiCl resulted in inhibition of GSK-3β activation, revealed by induction of GSK-3β serine 9 phosphorylation by LiCl (Figure 4B and andD).D). To further address the role of GSK-3β on tRXRα production, we transfected GSK-3β expression vector into HepG2 cells. Immunoblotting showed that transfection of GSK-3β potently inhibited the production of tRXRα in a dose-dependent manner (Figure 4E) and the inducing effect of LiCl on tRXRα production (Figure 4F). We also examined the effects of GSK-3β downregulation on tRXRα production by siRNA approach. Transfection of GSK-3β siRNA into HepG2 cells, which reduced the level of GSK-3β, enhanced the expression of tRXRα (Figure 4G). In addition, transfection of GSK-3β siRNA, but not control siRNA, impaired the effect of LiCl on inducing tRXRα production (Figure 4G). Thus, GSK-3β activation negatively regulates the expression of tRXRα protein.

Fig. 4.
GSK-3β inhibits tRXRα production. (A) Time-course effect of LiCl on tRXRα production. Lysates from HepG2 cells treated with LiCl for the indicated time were analyzed by WB using the indicated antibodies. (BD) Dose-dependent ...

GSK-3β inhibits tRXRα production by downregulation of calpain II

The inhibition of tRXRα production by GSK-3β prompted us to investigate whether its inhibitory effect involved calpain II. We first examined the effect of LiCl on calpain II expression. Our immunoblotting assay showed that treatment of HepG2 cells with LiCl induced the expression of calpain II (Figure 5A). The expression level of calpastatin was not altered in the presence or absence of LiCl, demonstrating the specific effect of LiCl on calpain II expression (Figure 5A). To address the role of GSK-3β, cells were transfected with GSK-3β expression vector and examined for calpain II expression. Figure 5B showed that transfection of GSK-3β expression vector inhibited the expression of calpain II in a dose-dependent manner. Knockdown of GSK-3β by GSK-3β siRNA transfection also increased the expression of calpain II and production of tRXRα (Figure 5C). Thus, GSK-3β plays a critical role in the regulation of calpain II expression in cancer cells. We also examined the effect of LiCl on AKT activation and found that treatment of cells with LiCl induced AKT activation in a dose-dependent manner, which was closely correlated with decreased GSK-3β activation, increased calpain II expression and enhanced tRXRα production (Figure 5D). Together, our results suggest a GSK-3β/calpain II/tRXRα cascade for AKT activation in cancer cells.

Fig. 5.
GSK-3β downregulates calpain II expression. (A) Induction of calpain II expression by LiCl. Lysates from HepG2 cells treated with 5 or 10mM LiCl for 24h were analyzed by WB using the indicated antibodies. (B) Inhibition of calpain II expression ...


Studying proteases responsible for RXRα cleavage and signaling pathways regulating tRXRα production is critical for understanding the newly identified tRXRα-dependent survival pathway in cancer cells. Here, we provide evidence that calpain II could cleave RXRα, resulting in the production of tRXRα in vitro and in vivo. We also identified its cleavage sites in RXRα and showed that one of the cleavage products represented tRXRα protein with its ability to activate AKT in cancer cells. Moreover, we found that GSK-3β negatively regulates tRXRα production by inhibiting the expression of calpain II. These results, therefore, identified a GSK-3β/calpain II/tRXRα axis for regulating the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway in cancer cells.

Previous studies showed that calpain II was involved in the proteolytic cleavage of RXRα. Results obtained in this study confirm that calpain II could cleave RXRα, resulting in the production of tRXRα in vitro and in vivo. Cleavage of RXRα by calpain II in vitro generates two C-terminal fragments of RXRα with apparent molecular masses of ~47 and ~44kDa (20). However, the cleavage sites of calpain II in RXRα were not determined, and whether calpain II cleaves RXRα in cells and whether the proteolytic products of RXRα are functional remained unknown. Our in vitro cleavage assay showed that calpain II could cleave E. coli expressed GST-RXRα to generate two C-terminal RXRα fragments with molecular weight ~47 and ~44kDa (Figure 1B and andC).C). By using Edman N-terminal sequencing, we identified the cleavage sites of calpain II in RXRα, which are located at ThrGly90↓Ser91Pro and LeuLys118↓Val119Pro in the A/B region of RXRα (Figure 1D). When we evaluated the effect of the resulting C-terminal RXRα products, RXRα/[increment]90 and RXRα/[increment]118, for their activation of AKT, we found that RXRα/[increment]90, but not RXRα/[increment]118, could activate AKT in cancer cells (Figure 1E). These results are consistent with our previous finding that RXRα/[increment]80 lacking 80 N-terminal amino acids, but not RXRα/[increment]100 lacking 100 N-terminal amino acids, was able to activate AKT in cancer cells (11). Thus, tRXRα product generated by calpain II cleavage of RXRα at Gly90↓Ser91 likely represents tRXRα that we reported previously (11). Interestingly, calpain II cleavage of AR results in expression of several truncated AR molecules and one of them acts as an androgen-independent isoform, promoting hormone-independent growth of prostate tumor cells (19). Thus, calpain II-mediated proteolysis likely represents an important mechanism that regulates the activities of nuclear receptors.

The notion that calpain II activation contributes to the generation of oncogenic tRXRα protein was further supported by our data showing that calpain II expression and activation were critical for the production of tRXRα in various cancer cell lines. Overexpression of calpain II increased the production of tRXRα in different cell types (Figure 2A and andB),B), and the activation of calpain II by ionomycin led to an enhanced expression of tRXRα (Figure 2C and andD).D). Consistently, inhibition of calpain II activation by calpain inhibitors calpastatin and calpeptin reduced tRXRα production (Figure 2E and andF).F). Moreover, our co-immunoprecipitation assays showed that calpain II, but not calpain I, could interact with RXRα in cells (Figure 3). These results convincingly demonstrate that calpain II is one of the proteases responsible for production of tRXRα, which in turn acts non-genomically to activate the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway in cancer cells. Calpain expression and activity are often altered during tumorigenesis (14,32). Overexpression of calpain II and downregulation of calpastatin are often observed in different types of cancer cells, and calpain inhibitors have shown promising anticancer effects in vitro and in animals (14,33,34). Calpain-mediated proteolytic cleavages of various substrates including AR, inhibitors of nuclear factor-κB, focal adhesion protein and several proto-oncogenes have been implicated in tumor pathogenesis (16,28,35). Our present finding that calpain II is involved in the generation of tRXRα together with our previous observation that tRXRα could promote cancel cell growth in vitro and in animals by activating TNFα-dependent PI3K/AKT signaling pathway suggest a new molecular event contributing to the tumorigenic effect of the altered calpain system in cancer.

Our results demonstrate that GSK-3β could serve as a negative regulator of tRXRα production in cancer cells by inhibiting calpain II expression. Several lines of evidence were presented to illustrate the role of GSK-3β in tRXRα production. First, treatment of cancer cells with LiCl, an inhibitor of GSK-3β (29), induced expression of tRXRα (Figure 4AD). Second, transfection of GSK-3β could inhibit tRXRα production (Figure 4E), whereas knocking down GSK-3β by siRNA approach induced tRXRα expression (Figure 4G). Furthermore, overexpression of GSK-3β could antagonize the inducing effect of LiCl on tRXRα production (Figure 4F). In studying the possible mechanism by which GSK-3β inhibited tRXRα production, we provided evidence that its effect was due to its inhibition of calpain II expression. Thus, LiCl treatment (Figure 5A) and transfection of GSK-3β siRNA (Figure 5C) resulted in an increase of calpain II expression. In contrast, transfection of GSK-3β dose dependently inhibited the expression of calpain II (Figure 5B). The molecular mechanism for downregulating calpain II expression by GSK-3β is currently unknown, but may involve its phosphorylation of calpain II leading to its ubiquitination and degradation, which is currently under investigation.

GSK-3β is a multifunctional serine/threonine kinase, which unlike most protein kinases is constitutively active in resting cells and undergoes a rapid and transient inhibition in response to a number of external signals (31,36). Dysregulation of GSK-3β has been implicated in a range of human pathologies including diabetes (37), cardiovascular disease (38) and neurodegenerative diseases (23), although its role in tumorigenesis remains controversial (24,39). GSK-3β regulates diverse substrates and signaling pathways. One of the most well-known substrates of GSK-3β is β-catenin, which is targeted for ubiquitin-mediated degradation by GSK-3β leading to inhibition of Wnt/β-catenin signaling (40). In addition to β-catenin, activities of p53, AP-1 and NF-κB are also regulated by GSK-3β (24). Our results identify RXRα as another downstream effector of GSK-3β action in cancer cells. The fact that GSK-3β activation inhibited the production of tRXRα known to activate the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway (11) suggests that inhibition of RXRα cleavage by GSK-3β may account for the tumor suppressive effect of GSK-3β. Interestingly, our results showed that inhibition of GSK-3β by LiCl could profoundly activate AKT (Figure 5D), which is known to inactivate GSK-3β by phosphorylating Ser9of GSK-3β (41). These results suggest a GSK-3β-tRXRα axis for amplifying AKT signaling in cancer cells.


Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (2010111081); the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC-91129302 and NSFC- 31271453); the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (15FT-0243); the National Institutes of Health (CA140980 and GM089927) and the United States Army Medical Research and Material Command (W81XWH-11-1-0677).

Conflict of Interest Statement: None declared.



androgen receptor
glycogen synthase kinase-3β
lithium chloride
phosphatidylinositol-3-OH kinase
retinoid X receptor α
sodium dodecyl sulfate–polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis;
small interfering RNA
Tris-buffered saline and Tween 20
truncated retinoid X receptor-α
western blotting.


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