HIV protease inhibitors block Akt signaling and radiosensitize tumor cells both in vitro and in vivo

Cancer Res. 2005 Sep 15;65(18):8256-65. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-05-1220.


In tumor cells with mutations in epidermal growth factor receptor (SQ20B), H-Ras (T24), or K-Ras (MIAPACA2 and A549), the inhibition of Akt phosphorylation increases radiation sensitivity in clonogenic assays, suggesting that Akt is a potential molecular target when combined with therapeutic radiation. Insulin resistance and diabetes are recognized side effects of HIV protease inhibitors (HPIs), suggesting that these agents may inhibit Akt signaling. Because activation of the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K)-Akt signaling pathway is common in human cancers, we hypothesized that HPIs can inhibit Akt activity resulting in increased tumor cell sensitivity to ionizing radiation-induced cell death. Five first-generation HPIs were subsequently tested and three of the five (amprenavir, nelfinavir, and saquinavir but not ritonavir or indinavir) inhibited Akt phosphorylation at Ser473 at serum concentrations routinely achieved in HIV patients. In both tumor cell colony formation assays and tumor regrowth delay experiments, combinations of drug and radiation exerted synergistic effects compared with either modality alone. In addition, in vivo, doses of amprenavir or nelfinavir comparable with the therapeutic levels achieved in HIV patients were sufficient to down-regulate phosphorylation of Akt in SQ20B and T24 xenografts. Finally, overexpression of active PI3K in cells without activation of Akt resulted in radiation resistance that could be inhibited with HPIs. Because there is abundant safety data on HPIs accumulated in thousands of HIV patients over the last 5 years, these agents are excellent candidates to be tested as radiation sensitizers in clinical trials.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Growth Processes / drug effects
  • Cell Growth Processes / radiation effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Down-Regulation / drug effects
  • Fibroblasts / drug effects
  • Fibroblasts / radiation effects
  • HIV Protease Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Neoplasms / radiotherapy*
  • Phosphorylation / drug effects
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism
  • Radiation Tolerance / drug effects
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents / pharmacology
  • Random Allocation
  • Rats
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects*
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • HIV Protease Inhibitors
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt