The role of protein kinase C (PK-C) in triggering the lytic response of cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) has been examined. Both target cell lysis and the release of CTL-associated serine esterase (SE), a marker for cytotoxic granules, were used as indicators of the CTL lytic response. We found triggering of the CTL lytic response occurred when both a PK-C activator, phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA), and a calcium ionophore, ionomycin, were added to CTL. The previously described inactivation of the CTL lytic response by long term treatment (24 hr) with PMA was also investigated. CTL cultured with PMA for 24 hr were unable to mediate target cell lysis or release SE; this inability to respond correlated with an absence of PK-C activity. Incubation of the PMA-treated CTL in the absence of PMA for an additional 24 hr resulted in recovery of PK-C activity, SE release, and the lytic response. These experiments strongly suggest that PK-C is involved with the transmembrane signaling required for SE release which is a necessary event in CTL-mediated target cell lysis.

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