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Oncogene. 2001 Sep 13;20(41):5865-77.

Sensitization for death receptor- or drug-induced apoptosis by re-expression of caspase-8 through demethylation or gene transfer.

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University Children's Hospital, Prittwitzstr. 43, D-89075 Ulm, Germany.


Resistance of tumors to treatment with cytotoxic drugs, irradiation or immunotherapy may be due to disrupted apoptosis programs. Here, we report in a variety of different tumor cells including Ewing tumor, neuroblastoma, malignant brain tumors and melanoma that caspase-8 expression acts as a key determinant of sensitivity for apoptosis induced by death-inducing ligands or cytotoxic drugs. In tumor cell lines resistant to TRAIL, anti-CD95 or TNFalpha, caspase-8 protein and mRNA expression was decreased or absent without caspase-8 gene loss. Methylation-specific PCR revealed hypermethylation of caspase-8 regulatory sequences in cells with impaired caspase-8 expression. Treatment with the demethylation agent 5-Aza-2'-deoxycytidine (5-dAzaC) reversed hypermethylation of caspase-8 resulting in restoration of caspase-8 expression and recruitment and activation of caspase-8 at the CD95 DISC upon receptor cross-linking thereby sensitizing for death receptor-, and importantly, also for drug-induced apoptosis. Inhibition of caspase-8 activity also inhibited apoptosis sensitization by 5-dAzaC. Similar to demethylation, introduction of caspase-8 by gene transfer sensitized for apoptosis induction. Hypermethylation of caspase-8 was linked to reduced caspase-8 expression in different tumor cell lines in vitro and, most importantly, also in primary tumor samples. Thus, these findings indicate that re-expression of caspase-8, e.g. by demethylation or caspase-8 gene transfer, might be an effective strategy to restore sensitivity for chemotherapy- or death receptor-induced apoptosis in various tumors in vivo.

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