Activation of human thymocytes and pre-B cells via the CD3/T cell receptor (TCR) complex or the IgM/B cell receptor complex, respectively, results in apoptotic cell death. Similarly, cross-linking of the activation marker CD69, which belongs to the natural killer complex, causes apoptosis of lipopolysaccharide-preactivated monocytes. Here we show that pertussis toxin (PTX) inhibits the activation-induced apoptosis of these three cell types, though it fails to prevent the programmed cell death that follows exposure of cells to the synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone (thymocytes, pre-B cells) or to interleukin 4 (monocytes). The capacity of pertussis toxin to suppress activation-induced death is not due to quenching of the activation signal, because thymocytes exposed to PTX are still capable of mobilizing Ca2+ after TCR-alpha/beta cross-linking and proliferate in response to costimulation with PTX and CD3/TCR ligation. The apoptosis-inhibitory effect of PTX depends on the presence of an intact adenosine diphosphate (ADP)-ribosylating moiety, since a mutant pertussis toxin molecule that lacks enzymatic activity, but still possesses the membrane translocating activity, fails to interfere with activation-induced cell death. A toxin that induces a different spectrum of ADP ribosylation than PTX, cholera toxin, fails to inhibit apoptosis. To suppress apoptosis, the intact PTX holotoxin must be added to cells before the lethal activation step; its addition 30 min after initial activation remains without effect on apoptosis. These data unravel a PTX sensitive signal transduction event that intervenes during an early step of activation-induced cell death of immune cells.

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