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J Biol Chem. 2007 Apr 13;282(15):10922-34. Epub 2007 Feb 15.

Alterations of ceramide/sphingosine 1-phosphate rheostat involved in the regulation of resistance to imatinib-induced apoptosis in K562 human chronic myeloid leukemia cells.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Hollings Cancer Center, Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Administration Hospital, and Department of Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston 29425, USA.


In this study, mechanisms of resistance to imatinib-induced apoptosis in human K562 cells were examined. Continuous exposure to stepwise increasing concentrations of imatinib resulted in the selection of K562/IMA-0.2 and -1 cells, which expressed approximately 2.3- and 19-fold resistance, respectively. Measurement of endogenous ceramides by high performance liquid chromatography/mass spectroscopy showed that treatment with imatinib increased the generation of ceramide, mainly C18-ceramide, which is generated by the human longevity assurance gene 1 (hLASS1), in sensitive, but not in resistant cells. Inhibition of hLASS1 by small interfering RNA partially prevented imatinib-induced cell death in sensitive cells. In reciprocal experiments, overexpression of hLASS1, and not hLASS6, in drug-resistant cells caused a marked increase in imatinib-induced C18-ceramide generation, and enhanced apoptosis. Interestingly, there were no defects in the levels of mRNA and enzyme activity levels of hLASS1 for ceramide generation in K562/IMA-1 cells. However, expression levels of sphingosine kinase-1 (SK1) and generation of sphingosine 1-phosphate (S1P) were increased significantly in K562/IMA-1 cells, channeling sphingoid bases to the sphingosine kinase pathway. The partial inhibition of SK1 expression by small interference RNA modulated S1P levels and increased sensitivity to imatinib-induced apoptosis in resistant cells. On the other hand, forced expression of SK1 in K562 cells increased the ratio between total S1P/C18-ceramide levels approximately 6-fold and prevented apoptosis significantly in response to imatinib. Additional data indicated a role for SK1/S1P signaling in the up-regulation of the Bcr-Abl expression at the post-transcriptional level, which suggested a possible mechanism for resistance to imatinib-mediated apoptosis. In conclusion, these data suggest a role for endogenous C18-ceramide synthesis mainly via hLASS1 in imatinib-induced apoptosis in sensitive cells, whereas in resistant cells, alterations of the balance between the levels of ceramide and S1P by overexpression of SK1 result in resistance to imatinib-induced apoptosis.

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