Erythropoietin is a multifunctional cytokine which regulates the number of erythrocytes circulating in mammalian blood. This is crucial in order to maintain an appropriate oxygen supply throughout the body. Stimulation of primary human erythroid progenitors (PEPs) with erythropoietin (Epo) leads to the activation of the mitogenic kinases (MEKs and Erks). How this is accomplished mechanistically remained unclear.
Biochemical studies with human cord blood-derived PEPs now show that Ras and the class Ib enzyme of the phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase (PI3K) family, PI3K gamma, are activated in response to minimal Epo concentrations. Surprisingly, three structurally different PI3K inhibitors block Ras, MEK and Erk activation in PEPs by Epo. Furthermore, Erk activation in PEPs is insensitive to the inhibition of Raf kinases but suppressed upon PKC inhibition. In contrast, Erk activation induced by stem cell factor, which activates c-Kit in the same cells, is sensitive to Raf inhibition and insensitive to PI3K and PKC inhibitors.
These unexpected findings contrast with previous results in human primary cells using Epo at supraphysiological concentrations and open new doors to eventually understanding how low Epo concentrations mediate the moderate proliferation of erythroid progenitors under homeostatic blood oxygen levels. They indicate that the basal activation of MEKs and Erks in PEPs by minimal concentrations of Epo does not occur through the classical cascade Shc/Grb2/Sos/Ras/Raf/MEK/Erk. Instead, MEKs and Erks are signal mediators of PI3K, probably the recently described PI3K gamma, through a Raf-independent signaling pathway which requires PKC activity. It is likely that higher concentrations of Epo that are induced by hypoxia, for example, following blood loss, lead to additional mitogenic signals which greatly accelerate erythroid progenitor proliferation.