Osteoclasts (OCs) function to reabsorb bone and are responsible for the bone loss associated with inflammatory arthritis and osteoporosis. OC numbers are elevated in most disorders of accelerated bone destruction, reflecting altered rates of precursor differentiation and apoptosis. Both of these processes are regulated by the JNK family of MAP kinases. In this study, we have demonstrated that the NF-κB subunit RelA/p65 inhibits JNK-mediated apoptosis during a critical period of commitment to the OC phenotype in response to the cytokine RANKL. This RelA/p65-mediated arrest of cell death led to enhanced OC differentiation. Hence, Rela-/- OC precursors displayed prolonged JNK activation in response to RANKL, and this was accompanied by an increase in cell death that prevented efficient differentiation. Although complete blockade of JNK activity inhibits osteoclastogenesis, both short-term blockade in RelA-deficient cultures and suppression of the downstream mediator, Bid rescued apoptosis and differentiation. These antiapoptotic effects were RelA specific, as overexpression of RelA, but not RelB, blocked apoptosis and rescued differentiation in Rela-/- precursors. Thus, RelA blocks a RANKL-induced, apoptotic JNK-Bid pathway, thereby promoting OC differentiation. Consistent with this, mice lacking RelA/p65 in the hematopoietic compartment were shown to have a deficient osteoclastogenic response to RANKL and were protected from arthritis-induced osteolysis.
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