Ceramide and reactive oxygen species (ROS) as signal transduction molecules in inflammation

  • Darren C. Phillips

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the sphingolipid ceramide are each partly
responsible for the intracellular signal transduction of a variety of physiological,
pharmacological or environmental agents. Furthermore, the enhanced production of many of these agents, that utilise ROS and ceramide as signalling intermediates, is associated with the aetiologies of several vascular diseases (e.g. atherosclerosis) or disorders of inflammatory origin (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis; RA). Excessive monocyte recruitment and uncontrolled T cell activation are both strongly implicated in the chronic inflammatory responses that are associated with these pathologies. Therefore the aims of this thesis are (1) to further elucidate the cellular responses to modulations in intracellular ceramide/ROS levels in monocytes and T cells, in order to help resolve the mechanisms of progression of these diseases and (2) to examine both existing agents (methotrexate) and novel targets for possible therapeutic manipulation.
Utilising synthetic, short chain ceramide to mimic the cellular responses to
fluctuations in natural endogenous ceramide or, stimulation of CD95 to induce
ceramide formation, it is described here that ceramide targets and manipulates two discrete sites responsible for ROS generation, preceding the cellular responses of growth arrest in U937 monocytes and apoptosis in Jurkat T-cells. In both cell types, transient elevations in mitochondrial ROS generation were observed. However, the prominent redox altering effects appear to be the ceramide-mediated reduction in cytosolic peroxide, the magnitude of which dictates in part the cellular response in U937 monocytes, Jurkat T-cells and primary human peripheral blood resting or PHA-activated T-cells in vitro.
The application of synthetic ceramides to U937 monocytes for short (2 hours) or long (16 hours) treatment periods reduced the membrane expression of proteins associated with cell-cell interaction. Furthermore, ceramide treated U937 monocytes demonstrated reduced adhesion to 5 or 24 hour LPS activated human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) but not resting HUVEC. Consequently it is hypothesised that the targeted treatment of monocytes from patients with cardiovascular diseases with short chain synthetic ceramide may reduce disease progression.
Herein, the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant drug, methotrexate, is described to require ROS production for the induction of cytostasis or cytotoxicity in U937 monocytes and Jurkat T-cells respectively. Further, ROS are critical for methotrexate to abrogate monocyte interaction with activated HUVEC in vitro.
The histological feature of RA of enhanced infiltration, survivability and hyporesponsiveness of T-cells within the diseased synovium has been suggested to arise from aberrant signalling. No difference in the concentrations of endogenous T-cell ceramide, the related lipid diacylglycerol (DAG) and cytosolic peroxide ex vivo was observed. TCR activation following PHA exposure in vitro for 72 hours did not induced maintained perturbations in DAG or ceramide in T-cells from RA patients or healthy individuals. However, T-cells from RA patients failed to upregulate cytosolic peroxide in response to PHA, unlike those from normals, despite expressing identical levels of the activation marker CD25. This inability to upregulate cytosolic peroxide may contribute to the T-cell pathology associated with RA by affecting the signalling capacity of redox sensitive biomolecules.
These data highlight the importance of two distinctive cellular pools of ROS in mediating complex biological events associated with inflammatory disease and suggest that modulation of cellular ceramides represents a novel therapeutic strategy to minimise monocyte recruitment.
Date of AwardJan 2003
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorHelen R Griffiths (Supervisor)


  • ceramide
  • reactive oxygen species
  • signal transduction
  • molecules
  • inflammation

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