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Research Article

Protein Kinase Activity of Phosphoinositide 3-Kinase Regulates Cytokine-Dependent Cell Survival


The protein kinase activity of PI3K phosphorylates specific serine residues in growth factor receptors to promote cell survival; these events are constitutively activated in some leukemias. The dual specificity protein/lipid kinase, phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K), promotes growth factor-mediated cell survival and is frequently deregulated in cancer. However, in contrast to canonical lipid-kinase functions, the role of PI3K protein kinase activity in regulating cell survival is unknown. We have employed a novel approach to purify and pharmacologically profile protein kinases from primary human acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells that phosphorylate serine residues in the cytoplasmic portion of cytokine receptors to promote hemopoietic cell survival. We have isolated a kinase activity that is able to directly phosphorylate Ser585 in the cytoplasmic domain of the interleukin 3 (IL-3) and granulocyte macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF) receptors and shown it to be PI3K. Physiological concentrations of cytokine in the picomolar range were sufficient for activating the protein kinase activity of PI3K leading to Ser585 phosphorylation and hemopoietic cell survival but did not activate PI3K lipid kinase signaling or promote proliferation. Blockade of PI3K lipid signaling by expression of the pleckstrin homology of Akt1 had no significant impact on the ability of picomolar concentrations of cytokine to promote hemopoietic cell survival. Furthermore, inducible expression of a mutant form of PI3K that is defective in lipid kinase activity but retains protein kinase activity was able to promote Ser585 phosphorylation and hemopoietic cell survival in the absence of cytokine. Blockade of p110α by RNA interference or multiple independent PI3K inhibitors not only blocked Ser585 phosphorylation in cytokine-dependent cells and primary human AML blasts, but also resulted in a block in survival signaling and cell death. Our findings demonstrate a new role for the protein kinase activity of PI3K in phosphorylating the cytoplasmic tail of the GM-CSF and IL-3 receptors to selectively regulate cell survival highlighting the importance of targeting such pathways in cancer. Author Summary The ability of cells to survive in the absence of proliferation (cell division), differentiation (cell maturation) or activation allows tissues to maintain cell populations that are poised for rapid responses to damage, infections, or other physiological demands. While this “survival-only” response is fundamental to all physiological processes, the underlying mechanisms are not understood. Many growth factors are potent regulators of cell survival through their ability to bind specific cell surface receptors, which in turn activate specialized enzymes called kinases. Phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) is a dual specificity kinase that is known to be involved in cell survival and malignant transformation, and it is able to phosphorylate both lipid and protein substrates. While the PI3K lipid kinase activity has been extensively studied, the functional significance of its protein kinase activity remains unclear. Here we show that PI3K protein kinase activity can directly phosphorylate growth factor receptors on human hematopoietic (blood) cells to promote a “survival-only” response. We further show that the protein kinase activity of PI3K can be hijacked to result in uncontrolled growth factor receptor phosphorylation and the deregulated survival of leukemic cells. Our studies provide the first evidence that the protein kinase activity of PI3K can control cell survival and that this activity may be deregulated in cancer.