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J Hematol Oncol. 2010 Aug 26;3:28. doi: 10.1186/1756-8722-3-28.

Basic mechanisms of arsenic trioxide (ATO)-induced apoptosis in human leukemia (HL-60) cells.

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Cellomics and Toxicogenomics Research Laboratory, NIH-RCMI Center for Environmental Health, College of Science, Engineering and Technology, Jackson State University, 1400 Lynch Street, Box 18540, Jackson, Mississippi, USA.



Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a blood cancer that affects people of all ages and strikes about 1,500 patients in the United States each year. The standard treatment of APL has been based on the combined administration of all-trans retinoic acid and chemotherapy including anthracyclins and cytarabine. However, 10-20% of patients relapse, with their disease becoming resistant to conventional treatment. Recently the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of arsenic trioxide (ATO) or Trisenox for the treatment of APL, based on clinical studies showing a complete remission, especially in relapsed patients. In a recently published study we demonstrated that ATO pharmacology as an anti-cancer drug is associated with its cytotoxic and genotoxic effects in human leukemia cells.


In the present study, we further investigated the apoptotic mechanisms of ATO toxicity using the HL-60 cell line as a test model. Apoptosis was measured by flow cytometry analysis of phosphatidylserine externalization (Annexin V assay) and caspase 3 activity, and by DNA laddering assay.


Flow cytometry data showed a strong dose-response relationship between ATO exposure and Annexin-V positive HL-60 cells. Similarly, a statistically significant and dose-dependent increase (p <0.05) was recorded with regard to caspase 3 activity in HL60 cells undergoing late apoptosis. These results were confirmed by data of DNA laddering assay showing a clear evidence of nucleosomal DNA fragmentation in ATO-treated cells.


Taken together, our research demonstrated that ATO represents an apoptosis-inducing agent and its apoptotic mechanisms involve phosphatidylserine externalization, caspase 3 activation and nucleosomal DNA fragmentation.

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