Department of Oral Surgery, Shanghai Ninth People's Hospital, College of Stomatology, Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, China; National Clinical Research Center of Oral Disease, China; Shanghai Key Laboratory of Stomatology & Shanghai Research Institute of Stomatology, China. Electronic address: [Email]
Abnormal signaling transduction in salivary gland cells is associated with the pathogenesis of Sjögren's syndrome (SS). Previously, we identified aberrant expression of toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) in gland cells of SS patients and mouse models. In this study, we investigated the role of TLR9 and its downstream p38/mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) and c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) signaling in mediating apoptosis and autophagy in human salivary gland (HSG) cells. We selected either CpG-Odn, a classical TLR9 activator, or lentivirus-packaged TLR9 full-length cDNA to activate TLR9 signaling transduction. Activation of TLR9 signaling induced phosphorylation of its downstream protein kinases, p38/MAPK and JNK, in a time-dependent manner, and decreased HSG cell viability. Western blotting of LC3B-II and p62 in both normal and autophagic flux-administered conditions revealed elevated autophagy upon TLR9 activation. Observing the cell cytoplasm through transmission electron microscopy and mRFP-GFP-LC3B-tagged fluorescence confirmed an increased number of autophagosomes and autolysosomes in TLR9-activated cells. Bax/Bcl-2 ratio calculations, caspase-3 activity assays and Hoechst nuclear staining were utilized to confirm the involvement of apoptosis in TLR9 signaling activation. Furthermore, we selected SB239063, a p38/MAPK signaling inhibitor, and SP600125, a JNK inhibitor, to identify the functions of p38/MAPK and JNK in TLR9-mediated signaling transduction. Multiple approaches, including Western blotting assays, fluorescence assessments and caspase-3 activity measurements, confirmed that inhibition of p38/MAPK signaling ameliorated both autophagy and apoptosis in TLR9-activated HSG cells, whereas inhibition of JNK signaling attenuated apoptosis but failed to modulate autophagy in the models mentioned above. Our results indicate a divergent function of p38/MAPK and JNK in TLR9-mediated autophagy and apoptosis in salivary gland cells.