γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) functions primarily as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mature central nervous system, and GABA/GABA receptors are also present in non-neural tissues, including cancer, but their precise function in nonneuronal or cancerous cells has thus far been poorly defined. Through the genome-wide cDNA microarray analysis of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) cells as well as subsequent reverse transcription-PCR and Northern blot analyses, we identified the overexpression of GABA receptor π subunit (GABRP) in PDAC cells. We also found the expression of this peripheral type GABAA receptor subunit in few adult human organs. Knockdown of endogenous GABRP expression in PDAC cells by small interfering RNA attenuated PDAC cell growth, suggesting its essential role in PDAC cell viability. Notably, the addition of GABA into the cell culture medium promoted the proliferation of GABRP-expressing PDAC cells, but not GABRP-negative cells, and GABAA receptor antagonists inhibited this growth-promoting effect by GABA. The HEK293 cells constitutively expressing exogenous GABRP revealed the growth-promoting effect of GABA treatment. Furthermore, GABA treatment in GABRP-positive cells increased intracellular Ca2+ levels and activated the mitogen-activated protein kinase/extracellular signal-regulated kinase (MAPK/Erk) cascade. Clinical PDAC tissues contained a higher level of GABA than normal pancreas tissues due to the upregulation of glutamate decarboxylase 1 expression, suggesting their autocrine/paracrine growth-promoting effect in PDACs. These findings imply that GABA and GABRP could play important roles in PDAC development and progression, and that this pathway can be a promising molecular target for the development of new therapeutic strategies for PDAC.
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