Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) plays a crucial role in rescuing neural crest cells from apoptosis during their migration in the foregut. This survival factor binds to the heterodimer GDNF family receptor α1/Ret, inducing the Ret tyrosine kinase activity. ret loss-of-function mutations result in Hirschsprung's disease, a frequent developmental defect of the enteric nervous system. Although critical to enteric nervous system development, the intracellular signaling cascades activated by GDNF and their importance in neuroectodermic cell survival still remain elusive. Using the neuroectodermic SK-N-MC cell line, we found that the Ret tyrosine kinase activity is essential for GDNF to induce phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K)/Akt and ERK pathways as well as cell rescue. We demonstrate that activation of PI3K is mandatory for GDNF-induced cell survival. In addition, evidence is provided for a critical up-regulation of the ERK pathway by PI3K at the level of Raf-1. Conversely, Akt inhibits the ERK pathway. Thus, both PI3K and Akt act in concert to finely regulate the level of ERK. We found that Akt activation is indispensable for counteracting the apoptotic signal on mitochondria, whereas ERK is partially involved in precluding procaspase-3 cleavage. Altogether, these findings underscore the importance of the Ret/PI3K/Akt pathway in GDNF-induced neuroectodermic cell survival.
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