Apoptotic response to homoharringtonine in human wt p53 leukemic cells is independent of reactive oxygen species generation and implicates Bax translocation, mitochondrial cytochrome c release and caspase activation

Leukemia. 2001 Apr;15(4):567-74. doi: 10.1038/sj.leu.2402067.


In the present study, we investigated the in vitro apoptotic response of leukemic cells to the cellular stress induced by homoharringtonine (HHT), a plant alkaloid with antileukemic activity which is currently being tested for treatment of acute and chronic leukemias. A comparison of leukemic cell lines with different p53 gene status revealed a considerably higher sensitivity to HHT-induced apoptosis in the cells with a wt p53, and apoptotic events in wt p53 leukemia cells (MOLT-3 cell line) were studied in more detail. To this end, we examined components of apoptotic cascades including Bax expression and its intracellular localization, changes of mitochondrial membrane potential (MMP), reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels, cytochrome c release from mitochondria and activation of caspases. Bax protein levels did not increase despite an up-regulation of bax at mRNA level. However, Bax translocation from cytosol towards mitochondria was observed. In addition, we observed a release of cytochrome c from the mitochondria, and the localization changes of both Bax and cytochrome c were found already at the early, annexin V-negative stage of HHT-induced apoptosis. HHT-treated MOLT-3 cells revealed loss of MMP as well as activation of caspases demonstrated by DEVD-, IETD- and LEHD-tetrapeptide cleavage activity in the cell lysates. ROS levels only slightly increased in HHT-treated cells and antioxidants did not prevent apoptosis and MMP changes. Therefore, wt p53 leukemic cells respond to HHT-specific cellular stress by induction of ROS-independent apoptotic pathway characterized by translocation of Bax, mitochondrial cytochrome c release and activation of caspases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Biological Transport
  • Caspases / physiology*
  • Cytochrome c Group / metabolism*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Enzyme Activation
  • Harringtonines / pharmacology*
  • Homoharringtonine
  • Humans
  • Leukemia / metabolism
  • Leukemia / pathology*
  • Membrane Potentials
  • Mitochondria / enzymology*
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / analysis*
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein


  • Antioxidants
  • BAX protein, human
  • Cytochrome c Group
  • Harringtonines
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein
  • Homoharringtonine
  • Caspases