Oxidant stress is associated with diminution of antioxidant molecules, such as alpha-tocopherol. alpha-Tocopherol specifically decreases, in a concentration dependent way, the proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells. At the same concentrations (10-50 mu M) it induces inhibition of protein kinase C (PKC) activity. The latter event is not due to a decrease in PKC level or to cc-tocopherol binding to PKC, but it results from increase of protein phosphatase 2A(1) activity. In vitro data, as well as at a cellular level, demonstrates that protein phosphatase 2A(1) is activated, in its trimeric structure-but not as a dimer by a-tocopherol. This activation is followed by PKC-alpha dephosphorylation. The activation of protein phosphatase 2A(1) and deactivation of PKC-alpha affect the AP1 transcription factor, resulting in a change in the composition and the binding of this factor to DNA. By transfecting smooth muscle cell with a construct containing three TRE (TPA responsive elements), the promoter thymidine kinase and the reporter gene chloramphenicol-acetyl-transferase a modulation of gene expression by alpha-tocopherol is observed. beta-Tocopherol does not cause any of the responses observed with alpha-tocopherol and R,R,R-alpha-tocopherol is twice as potent as all-rac-alpha-tocopherol. When added together, beta-tocopherol prevents the effects of alpha-tocopherol indicating that the mechanism involved is not related to the radical-scavenging properties of these two molecules, which are essentially equal. By differential display analysis it has been found that several genes of smooth muscle cells are differentially transcribed in the presence of alpha-tocopherol but not beta-tocopherol. In particular, the gene of alpha-tropomyosin shows a transient enhancement of transcription as a function of the cell cycle time. alpha-Tropomyosin translation is also increased by alpha-tocopherol and not by beta-tocopherol. Because no changes of mRNA stability can be observed in the presence of a-tocopherol, the data supports the conclusion of a transcriptional control exerted by alpha-tocopherol on alpha-tropomyosin. Generally, the data strongly suggests the existence of a ligand/receptor type of mechanism at the basis of alpha-tocopherol action. It is concluded that an oxidative stress-induced diminution of alpha-tocopherol in smooth muscle cell activates a reaction cascade leading to changes in gene expression and increase in cell proliferation by a non-antioxidant mechanism. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.