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Oncogene. 2011 Jan 27;30(4):494-503. doi: 10.1038/onc.2010.429. Epub 2010 Sep 20.

PI3K inhibitors prime neuroblastoma cells for chemotherapy by shifting the balance towards pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 proteins and enhanced mitochondrial apoptosis.

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Department of Hematology/Oncology, University Children's Hospital, Ulm, Germany.


We recently identified activation of phosphatidylinositol 3'-kinase (PI3K)/Akt as a novel predictor of poor outcome in neuroblastoma. Here, we investigated the effect of small-molecule PI3K inhibitors on chemosensitivity. We provide first evidence that PI3K inhibitors, for example PI103, synergize with various chemotherapeutics (Doxorubicin, Etoposide, Topotecan, Cisplatin, Vincristine and Taxol) to trigger apoptosis in neuroblastoma cells (combination index: high synergy). Mechanistic studies reveal that PI103 cooperates with Doxorubicin to reduce Mcl-1 expression and Bim(EL) phosphorylation and to upregulate Noxa and Bim(EL) levels. This shifted ratio of pro- and antiapoptotic Bcl-2 proteins results in increased Bax/Bak conformational change, loss of mitochondrial membrane potential, cytochrome c release, caspase activation and caspase-dependent apoptosis. Although Mcl-1 knockdown enhances Doxorubicin- and PI103-induced apoptosis, silencing of Noxa, Bax/Bak or p53 reduces apoptosis, underscoring the functional relevance of the Doxorubicin- and PI103-mediated modulation of these proteins for chemosensitization. Bcl-2 overexpression inhibits Bax activation, mitochondrial perturbations, cleavage of caspases and Bid, and apoptosis, confirming the central role of the mitochondrial pathway for chemosensitization. Interestingly, the broad-range caspase inhibitor zVAD.fmk does not interfere with Bax activation or mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization, whereas it blocks caspase activation and apoptosis, thus placing mitochondrial events upstream of caspase activation. Importantly, PI103 and Doxorubicin cooperate to induce apoptosis and to suppress tumor growth in patients' derived primary neuroblastoma cells and in an in vivo neuroblastoma model, underlining the clinical relevance of the results. Thus, targeting PI3K presents a novel and promising strategy to sensitize neuroblastoma cells for chemotherapy-induced apoptosis, which has important implications for the development of targeted therapies for neuroblastoma.

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