Ambient particulate matter (PM) is a worldwide health issue of concern. However, limited information is available regarding the toxic contributions of the nitro-derivatives of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (nitro-PAHs). This study intend to examine whether 1-nitropyrene (1-NP) and 3-nitrofluoranthene (3-NF) could activate the nuclear factor-erythroid 2-related factor 2/antioxidant response element (Nrf2/ARE) antioxidant defense system, and whether the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase/protein kinase B (PI3K/Akt) pathway participates in regulating pro-inflammatory responses in A549 cells. Firstly, 1-NP and 3-NF concentration-dependently induced cellular apoptosis, reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation, DNA damage, S phase cell cycle arrest and differential expression of related cytokine genes. Secondly, 1-NP and 3-NF activated the Nrf2/ARE defense system, as evidenced by increased protein expression levels and nuclear translocation of transcription factor Nrf2, elevated Nrf2/ARE binding activity, up-regulated expression of the target gene heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1). Significantly increased protein expression of DNA-dependent protein kinase catalytic subunit (DNA-PKcs) and phosphorylation level of Akt indicated that the PI3K/Akt pathway was activated during pro-inflammatory process. Further, both PI3K inhibitor (LY294002) and Akt inhibitor (MK-2206) reversed the elevated TNF-alpha expression to control level. Our results suggested that Nrf2/ARE pathway activation might cause an initiation step in cellular protection against oxidative stress caused by nitro-PAHs, and the PI3K/Akt pathway participated in regulating inflammatory responses.
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