Inhibition of transcription factor nuclear factor-kappaB by a mutant inhibitor-kappaBalpha attenuates resistance of human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma to TNF-alpha caspase-mediated cell death

Br J Cancer. 2000 Nov;83(10):1367-74. doi: 10.1054/bjoc.2000.1423.


Tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) is a cytokine that can induce cell death of different cancers via a cellular cascade of proteases, the caspases. However, TNF-alpha has been detected in tumour and serum of patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), and tumour cell lines derived from this environment often exhibit resistance to TNF-alpha-induced cell death. Cell death mediated by TNF-alpha and caspases may be inhibited by cytoprotective genes regulated by transcription factor nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB). We recently showed that NF-kappaB is constitutively activated in HNSCC, and that inhibition of NF-kappaB by expression of a nondegradable mutant inhibitor of NF-kappaB, IkappaBalphaM, markedly decreased survival and growth of HNSCC cells in vivo. In the present study, we examined the TNF-alpha sensitivity and response of HNSCC with constitutively active NF-kappaB, and of HNSCC cells in which NF-kappaB is inhibited by stable expression of a dominant negative mutant inhibitor, IkappaBalphaM. Human lines UM-SCC-9, 11B and 38, previously shown to exhibit constitutive activation of NF-kappaB, were found to be highly resistant to growth inhibition by up to 10(4)U/ml of TNF-alpha in 5 day MTT assay. These TNF-alpha resistant HNSCC lines expressed TNF receptor I, and exhibited constitutive and TNF-alpha-inducible activation of NF-kappaB as demonstrated by nuclear localization of NF-kappaB p65 by immunohistochemistry. UM-SCC-9 I11 cells which stably expressed an inhibitor of NF-kappaB, IkappaBalpham, were susceptible to TNF-alpha-induced growth inhibition. DNA cell cycle analysis revealed that TNF-alpha induced growth inhibition was associated with accumulation of cells with sub-G0/G1 DNA content. Cell death was demonstrated by trypan blue staining, and was blocked by caspase inhibitor. We conclude that HNSCC that exhibit constitutive and TNF-alpha-inducible activation of transcription factor NF-kappaB are resistant to TNF-alpha, and that inhibition of NF-kappaB sensitizes HNSCC to TNF-alpha caspase-mediated cytotoxicity. The demonstration of the role of activation of NF-kappaB in resistance of HNSCC to TNF-alpha may be helpful in the identification of potential targets for pharmacological, molecular and immune therapy of HNSCC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Apoptosis / genetics
  • Caspases / metabolism
  • Cell Survival
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / pathology
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • NF-kappa B / biosynthesis
  • NF-kappa B / pharmacology*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / pharmacology*


  • NF-kappa B
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Caspases