Calpain (a Ca(2+)-dependent protease) is present in many cell types. Because it is present in the cytosol, the potential exists that it may regulate critical intracellular events by inducing crucial proteolytic cleavages. However, the concentrations of Ca2+ required to activate calpain are higher than those attained in the cytoplasm of most cells. Thus, the physiological importance of calpain and the mechanisms involved in its activation have remained elusive. In this study, we show that calpain rapidly moved to a peripheral location upon the addition of an agonist to suspensions of platelets, but it remained unactivated. We provide three lines of evidence that calpain was subsequently activated by a mechanism that required the binding of an adhesive ligand to the major platelet integrin, glycoprotein (GP) IIb-IIIa: calpain activation was prevented by RGDS, a tetrapeptide that inhibits the binding of adhesive ligand to GP IIb-IIIa; it was also prevented by monoclonal antibodies that inhibit adhesive ligand binding to GP IIb-IIIa; and its activation was markedly reduced in platelets from patients whose platelets have greatly reduced levels of functional GP IIb-IIIa. Thus, in platelets, binding of the extracellular domain of GP IIb-IIIa to its adhesive ligand can initiate a transmembrane signal that activates intracellular calpain. Because calpain is present in focal contacts of adherent cells, the interaction of integrins with adhesive ligands in the extracellular matrix may regulate activation of calpain in other cell types as well.

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