Background: Hepatocelluar carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common cancers worldwide and a major cause of cancer-related mortality. HCC is highly resistant to currently available chemotherapeutic drugs. Defects in apoptosis signaling contribute to this resistance. Myeloid cell leukemia-1 (Mcl-1) is an anti-apoptotic member of the Bcl-2 protein family which interferes with mitochondrial activation. In a previous study we have shown that Mcl-1 is highly expressed in tissues of human HCC. In this study, we manipulated expression of the Mcl-1 protein in HCC cells by RNA interference and analyzed its impact on apoptosis sensitivity of HCC cells in vitro.
Methods: RNA interference was performed by transfecting siRNA to specifically knock down Mcl-1 expression in HCC cells. Mcl-1 expression was measured by quantitative real-time PCR and Western blot. Induction of apoptosis and caspase activity after treatment with chemotherapeutic drugs and different targeted therapies were measured by flow cytometry and fluorometric analysis, respectively.
Results: Here we demonstrate that Mcl-1 expressing HCC cell lines show low sensitivity towards treatment with a panel of chemotherapeutic drugs. However, treatment with the anthracycline derivative epirubicin resulted in comparatively high apoptosis rates in HCC cells. Inhibition of the kinase PI3K significantly increased apoptosis induction by chemotherapy. RNA interference efficiently downregulated Mcl-1 expression in HCC cells. Mcl-1 downregulation sensitized HCC cells to different chemotherapeutic agents. Sensitization was accompanied by profound activation of caspase-3 and -9. In addition, Mcl-1 downregulation also increased apoptosis rates after treatment with PI3K inhibitors and, to a lower extent, after treatment with mTOR, Raf I and VEGF/PDGF kinase inhibitors. TRAIL-induced apoptosis did not markedly respond to Mcl-1 knockdown. Additionally, knockdown of Mcl-1 efficiently enhanced apoptosis sensitivity towards combined treatment modalities: Mcl-1 knockdown significantly augmented apoptosis sensitivity of HCC cells towards chemotherapy combined with PI3K inhibition.
Conclusion: Our data suggest that specific downregulation of Mcl-1 by RNA interference is a promising approach to sensitize HCC cells towards chemotherapy and molecularly targeted therapies.