Hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) spontaneously transdifferentiate into myofibroblast (MFB)-phenotype on plastic dishes. This response recapitulates the features of activation in vivo. Transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) plays a prominent role in stimulating liver fibrogenesis by MFBs. In quiescent HSCs, TGF-beta signaling involves TGF-beta type I receptor (TbetaRI)-mediated phosphorylation of serine residues within the conserved SSXS motif at the C-terminus of Smad2 and Smad3. The middle linker regions of Smad2 and Smad3 also are phosphorylated by mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK). This study elucidates the change of Smad3-mediated signals during the transdifferentiation process. By using antibodies highly specific to the phosphorylated C-terminal region and the phosphorylated linker region of Smad3, we found that TGF-beta-dependent Smad3 phosphorylation at the C-terminal region decreased, but that the phosphorylation at the linker region increased in the process of transdifferentiation. TGF-beta activated the p38 MAPK pathway, further leading to Smad3 phosphorylation at the linker region in the cultured MFBs, irrespective of Smad2. The phosphorylation promoted hetero-complex formation and nuclear translocation of Smad3 and Smad4. Once combined with TbetaRI-phosphorylated Smad2, the Smad3 and Smad4 complex bound to plasminogen activator inhibitor-type I promoter could enhance the transcription. In addition, Smad3 phosphorylation mediated by the activated TbetaRI was impaired severely in MFBs during chronic liver injury, whereas Smad3 phosphorylation at the linker region was remarkably induced by p38 MAPK pathway. In conclusion, p38 MAPK-dependent Smad3 phosphorylation promoted extracellular matrix production in MFBs both in vitro and in vivo.
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