The hypothesis that cytoplasmic proteases play a functional role in programmed cell death was tested by examining the effect of protease inhibitors on the T cell receptor-mediated death of the 2B4 murine T cell hybridoma and activated T cells. The cysteine protease inhibitors trans-epoxysuccininyl-L-leucylamido-(4-guanidino) butane (E-64) and leupeptin, the calpain selective inhibitor acetyl-leucyl-leucyl-normethional, and the serine protease inhibitors diisopropyl fluorophosphate and phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride, all showed dose-dependent blocking of the 2B4 death response triggered by the T cell receptor complex and by anti-Thy-1. These protease inhibitors enhanced rather than inhibited IL-2 secretion triggered by T cell receptor cross-linking, showing that they did not act by preventing signal transduction. Growth inhibition induced by cross-linking the 2B4 T cell receptor, measured by inhibition of thymidine incorporation, was not generally blocked by these protease inhibitors. All five of these protease inhibitors enhanced rather than blocked 2B4 cell death triggered by dexamethasone, an agent previously shown to have a death pathway antagonistic with that of the TCR. 2B4 cytolysis by the cytotoxic agents staphylococcal alpha-toxin and dodecyl imidazole, and that caused by hypotonic conditions, was not significantly affected by the five protease inhibitors tested. The selected protease inhibitors blocked both the apoptotic nuclear morphology changes and DNA fragmentation induced by T cell receptor cross-linking, and enhanced both these properties induced by dexamethasone in 2B4 cells. The T cell receptor-induced death of activated murine lymph node T cells and human peripheral blood CD4+ T cells was blocked by both cysteine and serine protease inhibitors, showing that the protease-dependent death pathway also operates in these systems.

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