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Effects of cucurbitacins on cell morphology are associated with sensitization of renal carcinoma cells to TRAIL-induced apoptosis


Cucurbitacins B and D were among the compounds identified as sensitizers of cancer cells to TRAIL-mediated apoptosis in a high-throughput screen. Therefore a series of cucurbitacins was further investigated for TRAIL sensitization and possible mechanisms of action. A total of six cucurbitacins promoted TRAIL-induced apoptosis (B, I, E, C, D, and K) and one (P) was inactive. Sensitization of renal adenocarcinoma cells to TRAIL was apparent after as little as 1–4 h pretreatment and did not require continued presence of cucurbitacin. Active cucurbitacins induced caspase-8 activation only after subsequent TRAIL addition and caspase activation was required for apoptosis suggesting amplified proximal signaling from TRAIL death receptors. Cucurbitacin-sensitized TRAIL-induced cytotoxicity was inhibited by N-acetyl cysteine. Structure–activity relationship analysis in comparison to published studies suggests that TRAIL-sensitizing and general cytotoxic activities of cucurbitacins may be decoupled. Cucurbitacins are reported to be inhibitors of STAT3 activation. However, their TRAIL-sensitizing activity is STAT3-independent. Treatment of renal carcinoma cells with active cucurbitacins produced rapid and dramatic changes in cell morphology and cytoskeletal organization (also prevented by NAC). Therefore, cucurbitacins may be useful as tools for investigating the molecular mechanism(s) of action of TRAIL sensitizers, particularly with regard to temporal aspects of sensitization and modulation of TRAIL signaling by cell morphology, and could form the basis for future therapeutic development in combination with TRAIL death receptor agonists.

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Thanks to Heidi Bokesh and Kirk Gustafson for performing and interpreting chemical analysis to confirm identities of the compounds obtained from the DTP repository. Thanks also to Anna Maciag for assistance with ROS assays and to Tommy Turbyville for help with actin staining and confocal microscopy. This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the national Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, under contract HHSN261200800001E. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the US Government. This research was supported (in part) by the Intramural Research Program of NIH, National Cancer Institute, Center for Cancer Research.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Curtis J. Henrich.

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Henrich, C.J., Thomas, C.L., Brooks, A.D. et al. Effects of cucurbitacins on cell morphology are associated with sensitization of renal carcinoma cells to TRAIL-induced apoptosis. Apoptosis 17, 79–89 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10495-011-0652-7

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  • Cucurbitacins
  • TRAIL sensitizers
  • Apoptosis
  • STAT3
  • Cell morphology