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The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12943-017-0657-0) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Iris C Salaroglio and Elisa Panada were co-first authors.
Joanna Kopecka and Chiara Riganti were co-last authors
Nutrient deprivation, hypoxia, radiotherapy and chemotherapy induce endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, which activates the so-called unfolded protein response (UPR). Extensive and acute ER stress directs the UPR towards activation of death-triggering pathways. Cancer cells are selected to resist mild and prolonged ER stress by activating pro-survival UPR. We recently found that drug-resistant tumor cells are simultaneously resistant to ER stress-triggered cell death. It is not known if cancer cells adapted to ER stressing conditions acquire a chemoresistant phenotype.
To investigate this issue, we generated human cancer cells clones with acquired resistance to ER stress from ER stress-sensitive and chemosensitive cells.
ER stress-resistant cells were cross-resistant to multiple chemotherapeutic drugs: such multidrug resistance (MDR) was due to the overexpression of the plasma-membrane transporter MDR related protein 1 (MRP1). Gene profiling analysis unveiled that cells with acquired resistance to ER stress and chemotherapy share higher expression of the UPR sensor protein kinase RNA-like endoplasmic reticulum kinase (PERK), which mediated the erythroid-derived 2-like 2 (Nrf2)-driven transcription of MRP1. Disrupting PERK/Nrf2 axis reversed at the same time resistance to ER stress and chemotherapy. The inducible silencing of PERK reduced tumor growth and restored chemosensitivity in resistant tumor xenografts.
Our work demonstrates for the first time that the adaptation to ER stress in cancer cells produces a MDR phenotype. The PERK/Nrf2/MRP1 axis is responsible for the resistance to ER stress and chemotherapy, and may represent a good therapeutic target in aggressive and resistant tumors.