Retinoic acid (RA) is the ligand for nuclear RA receptors (RARs and RXRs) and is crucial for normal epithelial cell growth and differentiation. During malignant transformation, human bronchial epithelial cells acquire a block in retinoid signaling caused in part by a transcriptional defect in RARs. Here, we show that activation of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) contributes to RAR dysfunction by phosphorylating RARalpha and inducing degradation through the ubiquitin-proteasomal pathway. Analysis of RARalpha mutants and phosphopeptide mapping revealed that RARalpha residues Thr181, Ser445, and Ser461 are phosphorylated by JNK. Mutation of these residues to alanines prevented efficient ubiquitination of RARalpha and increased the stability of the protein. We investigated the importance of RARalpha phosphorylation by JNK as a mediator of retinoid resistance in lung cancer. Mice that develop lung cancer from activation of a latent K-ras oncogene had high intratumoral JNK activity and low RARalpha levels and were resistant to treatment with an RAR ligand. JNK inhibition in a human lung cancer cell line enhanced RARalpha levels, ligand-induced activity of RXR-RAR dimers, and growth inhibition by RA. These findings point to JNK as a key mediator of aberrant retinoid signaling in lung cancer cells.
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