Targeting autophagy to modulate cell survival: a comparative analysis in cancer, normal and embryonic cells

Autophagy is linked to multiple cancer-related signaling pathways, and represents a defense mechanism for cancer cells under therapeutic stress. The crosstalk between apoptosis and autophagy is essential for both tumorigenesis and embryonic development. We studied the influence of autophagy on cell survival in pro-apoptotic conditions induced by anticancer drugs in three model systems: human cancer cells (NCI-H460, COR-L23 and U87), human normal cells (HaCaT and MRC-5) and zebrafish embryos (Danio rerio). Autophagy induction with AZD2014 and tamoxifen antagonized the pro-apoptotic effect of chemotherapeutics doxorubicin and cisplatin in cell lines, while autophagy inhibition by wortmannin and chloroquine synergized the action of both anticancer agents. This effect was further verified by assessing cleaved caspase-3 and PARP-1 levels. Autophagy inhibitors significantly increased both apoptotic markers when applied in combination with doxorubicin while autophagy inducers had the opposite effect. In a similar manner, autophagy induction in zebrafish embryos prevented cisplatin-induced apoptosis in the tail region while autophagy inhibition increased cell death in the tail and retina of cisplatin-treated animals. Autophagy modulation with direct inhibitors of the PI3kinase/Akt/mTOR pathway (AZD2014 and wortmannin) triggered the cellular response to anticancer drugs more effectively in NCI-H460 and zebrafish embryonic models compared to HaCaT suggesting that these modulators are selective towards rapidly proliferating cells. Therefore, evaluating the autophagic properties of chemotherapeutics could help determine more accurately the fate of different cell types under treatment. Our study underlines the importance of testing autophagic activity of potential anticancer agents in a comparative approach to develop more rational anticancer therapeutic strategies.

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