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Cell Cycle. 2005 Jan;4(1):140-7. Epub 2005 Jan 19.

Novel assay utilizing fluorochrome-tagged physostigmine (Ph-F) to in situ detect active acetylcholinesterase (AChE) induced during apoptosis.

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  • 1Brander Cancer Research Institute, New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York, USA.


It was recently reported that acetylcholinesterase (AChE) is expressed in cells undergoing apoptosis and that its presence is essential for assembly of the apoptosome and subsequent caspase-9 activation. To obtain a marker of active AChE that could assay this enzyme in live intact cells and be applicable to fluorescence microscopy and cytometry, the fluorescein-tagged physostigmine (Ph-F), high affinity ligand (inhibitor) reactive with the active center of AChE, was constructed and tested for its ability to in situ label AChE and measure its induction during apoptosis. Ph-F inhibited cholinesterase activity in vitro (IC50 = 10(-6) and 5 x 10(-6) M for equine butyrylcholinesterase and human erythrocyte AChE, respectively) and was a selective marker of cells and structures that were AChE-positive. Thus, exposure of mouse bone marrow cells to Ph-F resulted in the exclusive labeling of megakaryocytes, and of the diaphragm muscle, preferential labeling of the nerve-muscle junctions (end-plates). During apoptosis of carcinoma HeLa cells and leukemic HL-60 or Jurkat cells triggered either by the DNA topoisomerase 1 inhibitor topotecan (TPT) or by oxidative stress (H2O2), the cells become reactive with Ph-F. Their Ph-F derived fluorescence was measured by flow and laser scanning cytometry. The appearance of Ph-F binding sites during apoptosis was preceded by the loss of mitochondrial potential, was concurrent with the presence of activated caspases, and was followed by loss of membrane integrity. At a very early stage of apoptosis, when nucleolar segregation was apparent, the Ph-F binding sites were distinctly localized within the nucleolus and at later stages of apoptosis in the cytoplasm. During apoptosis triggered by TPT, Ph-F binding was preferentially induced in S-phase cells. Our data on megakaryocytes and end-plates indicate that Ph-F reacts with active sites of AChE, and can be used to reveal the presence of this enzyme in live cells and possibly to study its expression in disorders of the neurological cholinergic system. The findings are also compatible with the reports that AChE may be induced during apoptosis. In fact, the simple and rapid Ph-F binding assay may serve as a convenient marker of apoptotic cells. However, the proposed role of active AChE as an essential factor for assembly of the apoptosome and caspase activation is in question because the AChE inhibitors Ph, Ph-F and BW284c51 did not protect the cells from apoptosis induced by TPT or H2O2. Further studies are thus needed to ascertain the induction and role of AChE in apoptosis.

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