The Ku autoantigen is a heterodimer of 70- and 80-kD proteins recognized by autoantibodies from patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and related diseases that is the DNA-binding component of a DNA-dependent protein kinase. The catalytic activity of DNA-dependent protein kinase is carried by a 350-kD subunit (p350). In light of the recently described role of Ku in repairing double-strand DNA breaks, we investigated the regulation of Ku and p350 levels in neutrophils, a terminally differentiated cell type destined to undergo apoptosis. Since the appearance of double-strand DNA breaks is characteristic of apoptosis, we were interested in the possibility that Ku might oppose programmed cell death. Analysis of peripheral blood cells by flow cytometry using anti-Ku and anti-p350 monoclonal antibodies revealed that neutrophils were unstained, whereas resting (G0) lymphocytes were positive. The absence of Ku in mature neutrophils was confirmed by Western blotting and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for Ku antigen. In contrast, the human promyelocytic leukemia line, HL-60, which undergoes differentiation toward neutrophils after dimethylsulfoxide treatment, was positive for Ku and p350. In view of the short lifespan of neutrophils and the prolonged half-life of Ku and p350 (> 5 d), these data suggested that Ku was actively degraded during myeloid differentiation. Analysis of HL-60 cells by flow cytometry revealed that Ku staining was bimodal. Cells in G1/G0, S, or G2/M were all stained positively, whereas cells with a subdiploid DNA content characteristic of apoptosis were Ku negative. Similar results were obtained with phytohemagglutin-stimulated human lymphocytes. These data suggest that the Ku antigen is actively degraded in both myeloid cells destined to undergo apoptosis and apoptotic lymphocytes, raising the possibility that degradation of Ku may help to prevent the inappropriate repair of fragmented nuclear DNA during apoptosis.

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