Nelfinavir, a new anti-cancer drug with pleiotropic effects and many paths to autophagy

Autophagy. 2008 Jan;4(1):107-9. doi: 10.4161/auto.5224. Epub 2007 Oct 31.


The development of cancer drugs is slow and costly. One approach to accelerate the availability of new drugs is to reposition drugs approved for other indications as anti-cancer agents. HIV protease inhibitors (HIV PIs) are useful in treating HIV infection and cause toxicities in humans that are similar to those observed when the kinase Akt, a target for cancer therapy, is inhibited. To test whether HIV PIs inhibited Akt and cancer cell proliferation, we screened 6 HIV PIs and found that three, ritonavir, saquinavir and nelfinavir, inhibit the growth of over 60 cancer cell lines derived from 9 different tumor types; Nelfinavir is the most potent. Nelfinavir causes caspase-dependent apoptosis and non-apoptotic death, as well as endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress and autophagy. Nelfinavir blocks growth factor receptor activation and decreases growth factor-induced and endogenous Akt signaling. In vivo, nelfinavir inhibits tumor growth and upregulates markers of ER stress, autophagy and apoptosis. Nelfinavir is currently being tested in cancer patients in Phase I clinical trials where biomarkers will be assessed. Current studies are focused on measuring autophagy in clinical specimens and identifying combination strategies that will exploit the induction of autophagy and increase the effectiveness of nelfinavir.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Autophagy / drug effects*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Elongation Factor 2 Kinase / metabolism
  • HIV Protease Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Nelfinavir / pharmacology*
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • HIV Protease Inhibitors
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • EEF2K protein, human
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt
  • Elongation Factor 2 Kinase
  • Nelfinavir