Deficiency of the cyclin kinase inhibitor p21(WAF-1/CIP-1) promotes apoptosis of activated/memory T cells and inhibits spontaneous systemic autoimmunity.
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A characteristic feature of systemic lupus erythematosus is the accumulation of activated/memory T and B cells. These G0/G1-arrested cells express high levels of cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors such as p21, are resistant to proliferation and apoptosis, and produce large amounts of proinflammatory cytokines. Herein, we show that ablation of p21 in lupus-prone mice allows these cells to reenter the cell cycle and undergo apoptosis, leading to autoimmune disease reduction. Absence of p21 resulted in enhanced Fas/FasL-mediated activation-induced T cell death, increased activation of procaspases 8 and 3, and loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential. Increased apoptosis was also associated with p53 up-regulation and a modest shift in the ratio of Bax/Bcl-2 toward the proapoptotic Bax. Proliferation and apoptosis of B cells were also increased in p21-/- lupus mice. Thus, modulation of the cell cycle pathway may be a novel approach to reduce apoptosis-resistant pathogenic lymphocytes and to ameliorate systemic autoimmunity.