Background: Pancreatic cancer cells often show resistance to hypoxia-mediated apoptosis, but the molecular mechanism underlying that resistance remains unknown. The purpose of the present study, therefore, was to examine the role of epigenetic gene alteration in the resistance to hypoxia-mediated apoptosis among pancreatic cancer cells.
Methods: Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to examine the expression of five genes associated with hypoxia-mediated apoptosis (PUMA, Caspase-8 [CASP8], APAF-1, BNIP3, and BNIP3L) in a panel of pancreatic cancer cell lines. Protein expression was examined by Western blot analysis, using lysates from cells incubated under normoxic or hypoxic conditions. The methylation status of the genes was determined using bisulfite-PCR and sequencing. The percentages of cells that were apoptotic were determined using flow cytometry.
Results: Under normoxic conditions, the expression of the BNIP3 gene varied among the 12 pancreatic cancer cell lines tested, with 50% of them showing no BNIP3 expression at all, whereas expression of the other four genes was readily detected in all 12 cell lines. DNA methylation of BNIP3's CpG island in the region around the transcription start site of the gene was closely associated with its silencing. The expression of BNIP3 was restored by the methyltransferase inhibitor 5-aza-deoxycytidine (5-aza-dC), as was the hypoxia-mediated pancreatic cancer cell death.
Conclusions: BNIP3 expression is silenced in some pancreatic cancer cells by the methylation of its CpG island. Demethylation of BNIP3, using a methyltransferase inhibitor, restores the gene's expression and induces hypoxia-mediated cell death. BNIP3 may thus be a useful target for new therapies aimed at treating pancreatic cancer.