JBIC Journal of Biological Inorganic Chemistry

, Volume 19, Issue 6, pp 813–828 | Cite as

Selenite-mediated production of superoxide radical anions in A549 cancer cells is accompanied by a selective increase in SOD1 concentration, enhanced apoptosis and Se–Cu bonding

  • Claire M. Weekley
  • Gloria Jeong
  • Michael E. Tierney
  • Farjaneh Hossain
  • Aung Min Maw
  • Anu Shanu
  • Hugh H. Harris
  • Paul K. WittingEmail author
Original Paper


Selenite may exert its cytotoxic effects against cancer cells via the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). We investigated sources of, and the cellular response to, superoxide radical anion (O2 ·−) generated in human A549 lung cancer cells after treatment with selenite. A temporal delay was observed between selenite treatment and increases in O2 ·− production and biomarkers of apoptosis/necrosis, indicating that the reduction of selenite by the glutathione reductase/NADPH system (yielding O2 ·−) is a minor contributor to ROS production under these conditions. By contrast, mitochondrial and NADPH oxidase O2 ·− generation were the major contributors. Treatment with a ROS scavenger [poly(ethylene glycol)-conjugated superoxide dismutase (SOD) or sodium 4,5-dihydroxybenzene-1,3-disulfonate] 20 h after the initial selenite treatment inhibited both ROS generation and apoptosis determined at 24 h. In addition, SOD1 was selectively upregulated and its perinuclear cytoplasmic distribution was colocalised with the cellular distribution of selenium. Interestingly, messenger RNA for manganese superoxide dismutase, catalase, inducible haem oxygenase 1 and glutathione peroxidase either remained unchanged or showed a delayed response to selenite treatment. Colocalisation of Cu and Se in these cells (Weekley et al. in J. Am. Chem. Soc. 133:18272–18279, 2011) potentially results from the formation of a Cu–Se species, as indicated by Cu K-edge extended X-ray absorption fine structure spectra. Overall, SOD1 is upregulated in response to selenite-mediated ROS generation, and this likely leads to an accumulation of toxic hydrogen peroxide that is temporally related to decreased cancer cell viability. Increased expression of SOD1 gene/protein coupled with formation of a Cu–Se species may explain the colocalisation of Cu and Se observed in these cells.

Graphical abstract


Selenium Cell viability Reactive oxygen species Synchrotron radiation Superoxide radical anion 



Dihydrorhodamine 123


5,5-Dimethyl-1-pyrroline N-oxide


Electron paramagnetic resonance


Extended X-ray absorption fine structure


Glutathione peroxidase




Selenocysteine variant of the human copper chaperone


Haem oxygenase 1


Hydrogen selenide


Lactate dehydrogenase


Messenger RNA


Poly(ethylene glycol)-conjugated superoxide dismutase


Rhodamine 123


Reactive oxygen species


Superoxide dismutase


X-ray absorption near-edge structure



A549 cells and tiron were gifts from Aviva Levina and Shane Thomas, respectively. We thank Jade Aitken, Stefan Vogt and Lydia Finney for assistance with synchrotron data collection and Ian Musgrave for assistance with cell culture. We are grateful to Ninian Blackburn for providing spectra of hCCS245Sec, and to Graham George and Enzo Lombi for providing small-molecule Cu spectra. Use of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, and Office of Basic Energy Sciences, under contract DE-AC02-06CH11357. We acknowledge travel funding provided by the International Synchrotron Access Program managed by the Australian Synchrotron and funded by the Australian Government and research funding from the Australian Research Council (DP0985807) and the Australian Synchrotron Postgraduate Award (C.M.W.). We acknowledge that part of this work was undertaken at the XAS beamline at the Australian Synchrotron (Clayton, Australia).

Supplementary material

775_2014_1113_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1.1 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 1175 kb)


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Copyright information

© SBIC 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Claire M. Weekley
    • 1
  • Gloria Jeong
    • 2
  • Michael E. Tierney
    • 2
  • Farjaneh Hossain
    • 2
  • Aung Min Maw
    • 2
  • Anu Shanu
    • 2
  • Hugh H. Harris
    • 1
  • Paul K. Witting
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.School of Chemistry and PhysicsThe University of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia
  2. 2.The Discipline of PathologyThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia

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