The regulatory Tat protein of human immunodeficiency virus type-1 (HIV- 1) exerts a pleyotropic activity on the survival and proliferation of different cell types in culture. In this report, we investigated the effect of either endogenous or exogenous Tat on Bcl-2 proto-oncogene expression and cell survival in Jurkat T-cell lines and primary peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Stable and transient transfections of Jurkat cells with the cDNA of tat and a plasmid containing Bcl-2 promoter in front of CAT (Bcl-2 Pr/CAT) stimulated CAT activity and showed an increase of Bcl-2 mRNA and protein expression. This effect was specifically related to tat, because Jurkat cells transfected with the cDNA of tat in antisense orientation, tat carrying a mutation in the amino acid cys22-gly22, or the control vector alone (pRPneo-SL3) did not show any significant difference in Bcl-2 promoter activity with respect to parental Jurkat cells. We also observed a specific correlation between tat-induced Bcl-2 gene expression and inhibition of apoptosis induced by serum withdrawal. Our results suggest that the structural integrity of the activation domain of Tat was required for the promotion of the Bcl-2 promoter and Jurkat cell survival, because a single mutation in the aminoacid cys22 was sufficient to completely block the upregulation of Bcl-2 and inhibition of apoptosis. Moreover, picomolar concentrations of native or recombinant Tat were able to upregulate Bcl-2 expression both in Jurkat and primary peripheral blood mononuclear cells, suggesting that extracellular Tat, actively released by infected cells, may also play a significant role in suppressing apoptosis. An aberrant cell survival of lymphoid cells consequent to the upregulation of Bcl-2 may represent an additional pathogenetic mechanism that could help explain both the dysregulated immune response and the frequent occurrence of hyperplastic/neoplastic disorders in HIV- 1-seropositive individuals.

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