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Beyond a structural component: sphingolipids in immunology

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Two major classes of lipids paricipating in signaling cascades in immune cells are known today. One comprises glycerol-based lipids with diacylglycerol as its most prominent member that mediates the activation of classical and novel protein kinase C molecules. The second group contains the sphingolipids, with the best-investigated representatives being sphingosine, sphingosine-1-phosphate, and ceramide. In the last years the latter two molecules have especially received considerable attention for their modulatory capacity in the course of an apoptotic response. Today it is clear that sphingolipids are ubiquitously distributed in all eukaryotic cells, especially in cellular membranes, where they were previously thought to fulfil an exclusively structural role. Recent findings, however, have demonstrated functions beyond this. Sphingolipid specific G-protein coupled receptors were identified and their role as intracellular second messengers has been further elucidated. In addition, glycosphingolipids, in particular, are enriched in certain membrane compartments, known as detergent resistant membranes. These serve as entry sites for several receptor-mediated signaling events by stabilizing receptor/kinase interactions, suggesting an involvement in the initiation of signaling cascades. Altogether, these findings have led to new insights into both the role of these lipids in signaling as well as the underlying pathology of several diseases with imbalances in the sphingolipid metabolism. The development of these disorders has mainly been attributed to the toxic potential of lysosphingolipids up to now. In addition, attempts have been made to develop compounds and drugs containing the sphingolipid backbone for influencing diseases associated with unwanted cell activation (e.g, cancer, inflammatory processes). These novel findings and developments are reviewed in the following.
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E.E. Prieschl, Department of Immunology, Novartis Research Institute, Brunner Str. 59, A-1235 Vienna, Austria
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