Background: In contrast to the anti-apoptotic action of nitric oxide (NO) on endothelial cells, NO exerts a pro-apoptotic effect on vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs). This study was designed to elucidate the mechanism underlying NO-induced apoptosis in rat VSMCs. Methods and results: (1) Using the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated digoxigenin-11-dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) assay and fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS) analyses, apoptosis of rat VSMCs were confirmed after exposure to sodium nitroprusside (SNP) (0.5 to 4 mmol/l), an exogenous NO donor. The effects of SNP were blocked by hemoglobin. (2) A universal caspase inhibitor, z-VAD-fmk, dose-dependently inhibited NO-induced apoptosis. VSMCs degraded Ac-DEVD-pNA rather than Ac-WHED-pNA after exposure to SNP, which suggested that the activation of caspase 3 rather than caspase 1 was involved in the process. Immunoblot analysis confirmed the activation of caspase-3. (3) Exposure to SNP induced the release of cytochrome c from the mitochondria to the cytosol, which was detected by immunoblot analysis of mitochondrial and cytosol fractions. (4) SNP exposure increased the ratio of Bax/Bcl-2 protein expression twofold by immunoblot analysis. Conclusions: The mechanism of NO-induced apoptosis in rat VSMCs involves an increase in the ratio of Bax/Bcl-2 gene expression, which leads to the release of cytochrome c from the mitochondria to the cytosol, finally activating caspase-3 and resultant apoptosis.
- Nitric oxide
- Vascular smooth muscle cells