Clostridioides difficile toxin B alone and with pro-inflammatory cytokines induces apoptosis in enteric glial cells by activating three different signalling pathways mediated by caspases, calpains and cathepsin B

Clostridioides difficile infection (CDI) causes nosocomial/antibiotic-associated gastrointestinal diseases with dramatically increasing global incidence and mortality rates. The main C. difficile virulence factors, toxins A and B (TcdA/TcdB), cause cytopathic/cytotoxic effects and inflammation. We demonstrated that TcdB induces caspase-dependent, mitochondria-independent enteric glial cell (EGC) apoptosis that is enhanced by the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-α and IFN-γ (CKs) by increasing caspase-3/7/9 and PARP activation. Because this cytotoxic synergism is important for CDI pathogenesis, we investigated the apoptotic pathways involved in TcdB- and TcdB + CK-induced apoptosis indepth. EGCs were pre-treated with the inhibitors BAF or Q-VD-OPh (pan-caspase), Z-DEVD-fmk (caspase-3/7), Z-IETD-fmk (caspase-8), PD150606 (calpains), and CA-074Me (cathepsin B) 1 h before TcdB exposure, while CKs were given 1.5 h after TcdB exposure, and assays were performed at 24 h. TcdB and TcdB + CKs induced apoptosis through three signalling pathways activated by calpains, caspases and cathepsins, which all are involved both in induction and execution apoptotic signalling under both conditions but to different degrees in TcdB and TcdB + CKs especially as regards to signal transduction mediated by these proteases towards downstream effects (apoptosis). Calpain activation by Ca2+ influx is the first pro-apoptotic event in TcdB- and TcdB + CK-induced EGC apoptosis and causes caspase-3, caspase-7 and PARP activation. PARP is also directly activated by calpains which are responsible of about 75% of apoptosis in TcdB and 62% in TcdB + CK which is both effector caspase-dependent and -independent. Initiator caspase-8 activation mediated by TcdB contributes to caspase-3/caspase-7 and PARP activation and is responsible of about 28% of apoptosis in both conditions. Caspase-3/caspase-7 activation is weakly responsible of apoptosis, indeed we found that it mediates 27% of apoptosis only in TcdB. Cathepsin B contributes to triggering pro-apoptotic signal and is responsible in both conditions of about 35% of apoptosis by a caspase-independent manner, and seems to regulate the caspase-3 and caspase-7 cleaved fragment levels, highlighting the complex interaction between these cysteine protease families activated during TcdB-induced apoptosis. Further a relevant difference between TcdB- and TcdB + CK-induced apoptosis is that TcdB-induced apoptosis increased slowly reaching at 72 h the value of 18.7%, while TcdB + CK-induced apoptosis increased strongly reaching at 72 h the value of 60.6%. Apoptotic signalling activation by TcdB + CKs is enriched by TNF-α-induced NF-κB signalling, inhibition of JNK activation and activation of AKT. In conclusion, the ability of C. difficile to activate three apoptotic pathways represents an important strategy to overcome resistance against its cytotoxic activity.

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