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Cell Death Differ. 2004 Feb;11(2):154-64.

Retinoid-related molecules require caspase 9 for the effective release of Smac and the rapid induction of apoptosis.

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Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, San Diego, California 92121, USA.


Certain retinoid-related molecules (RRMs) with agonist or antagonist activities have been described to induce apoptosis in a variety of cancer cell lines and show promise for the treatment of cancer. Similar to other chemotherapeutic drugs, these retinoid analogs have been suggested to induce apoptosis through the intrinsic pathway, which requires the release of cytochrome c from the mitochondria for the effective activation of caspase 9. Expression of a catalytically inactive form of caspase 9, which functions as a dominant negative mutant, inhibits the induction of DEVDase activity and nuclear fragmentation by selective RRMs. Whereas the RRMs could induce the release of cytochrome c in the absence of caspase 9 activity, the later is necessary for the effective release of Smac/Diablo from the mitochondria. Furthermore, overexpression of Bcl-2 or Bcl-X(L) also inhibits RRM-induced apoptosis. We demonstrate that activation of caspase 2 by the agonist MX2870-1 requires caspase 9 activity and is inhibited by Bcl-2 overexpression. In contrast, the antagonist MX781 induces cleavage of procaspase 2 upstream of mitochondria and independently of caspase 9. Thus, two retinoid analogs with unique characteristics activate two distinct apical caspases (2 or 9) to initiate apoptosis. In addition to caspase-mediated cell death, sustained exposure to the RRMs can also lead to loss of cell viability in cells lacking caspase 9 activity or in cells stimulated in the presence of the caspase inhibitor Z-VAD-fmk. Moreover, MX2870-1 and MX781 produce cell cycle arrest independently of caspase activity and the retinoid receptors.

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