Cyclin-dependent kinases (Cdks) play a key role in orchestrating the coordination of cell cycle progression in proliferating cells. The escape from the proper control of the cell cycle by the upregulation of cyclins or aberrant activation of Cdks leads to malignant transformation. In quiescent cells and/or terminally differentiated cells, the expression pattern and activity of Cdks is altered. In postmitotic neurons, expression of mitotic kinases is downregulated, whereas Cdk5 expression becomes upregulated. Similarly to other Cdks, free Cdk5 displays no enzymatic activity and requires complex formation with a specific regulatory subunit. Two activators of Cdk5 have been identified. p35 and its isoform p39 bind to, and thereby activate, Cdk5. Unlike mitotic kinases, Cdk5 does not require activating phosphorylation within the T-loop. Because p35 is a short-lived protein, the p35/Cdk5 complexes are unstable. The stability of the p35 protein is regulated by its Cdk5-mediated phosphorylation of p35. Activated p35/Cdk5 kinase phosphorylates numerous physiological targets.
The proper phosphorylation of the most important substrates, such as τ protein and neurofila-ment H, is essential for the correct regulation of the cytoskeletal organization, thereby regulating cell adhesion, motility, and synaptic plasticity. Moreover, Cdk5 regulates the activity of the p53 tumor suppressor via phosphorylation. p53 is upregulated in multiple neuronal death paradigms, including hypoxia, ischemia, and excitotoxicity, and plays a key role in the induction of apoptosis.
On the other hand, an abnormally high expression and elevated activity of Cdk5 was observed in neurodegenerative diseases, suggesting the application of Cdk inhibitors for their therapy. Considering the action of some Cdk inhibitors on the expression and activity of the p53 protein, their therapeutic efficacy must be carefully evaluated.