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01.12.2017 | Review | Ausgabe 1/2017 Open Access

Journal of Hematology & Oncology 1/2017

Therapeutic strategies of drug repositioning targeting autophagy to induce cancer cell death: from pathophysiology to treatment

Journal of Hematology & Oncology > Ausgabe 1/2017
Go J. Yoshida


The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the researcher that discovered autophagy, which is an evolutionally conserved catabolic process which degrades cytoplasmic constituents and organelles in the lysosome. Autophagy plays a crucial role in both normal tissue homeostasis and tumor development and is necessary for cancer cells to adapt efficiently to an unfavorable tumor microenvironment characterized by hypo-nutrient conditions. This protein degradation process leads to amino acid recycling, which provides sufficient amino acid substrates for cellular survival and proliferation. Autophagy is constitutively activated in cancer cells due to the deregulation of PI3K/Akt/mTOR signaling pathway, which enables them to adapt to hypo-nutrient microenvironment and exhibit the robust proliferation at the pre-metastatic niche. That is why just the activation of autophagy with mTOR inhibitor often fails in vain. In contrast, disturbance of autophagy–lysosome flux leads to endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress and an unfolded protein response (UPR), which finally leads to increased apoptotic cell death in the tumor tissue. Accumulating evidence suggests that autophagy has a close relationship with programmed cell death, while uncontrolled autophagy itself often induces autophagic cell death in tumor cells. Autophagic cell death was originally defined as cell death accompanied by large-scale autophagic vacuolization of the cytoplasm. However, autophagy is a “double-edged sword” for cancer cells as it can either promote or suppress the survival and proliferation in the tumor microenvironment. Furthermore, several studies of drug re-positioning suggest that “conventional” agents used to treat diseases other than cancer can have antitumor therapeutic effects by activating/suppressing autophagy. Because of ever increasing failure rates and high cost associated with anticancer drug development, this therapeutic development strategy has attracted increasing attention because the safety profiles of these medicines are well known. Antimalarial agents such as artemisinin and disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD) are the typical examples of drug re-positioning which affect the autophagy regulation for the therapeutic use. This review article focuses on recent advances in some of the novel therapeutic strategies that target autophagy with a view to treating/preventing malignant neoplasms.

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