Different forms of cell death induced by putative BCL2 inhibitors

Cell Death Differ. 2009 Jul;16(7):1030-9. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2009.48. Epub 2009 Apr 24.


Several inhibitors of BCL2 proteins have been identified that induce apoptosis in a variety of tumor cells, indicating their potential in cancer therapy. We investigated the specificity of six putative BCL2 inhibitors (obatoclax, gossypol, apogossypol, EM20-25, chelerythrine and ABT-737). Using cells deficient either for Bax/Bak or caspase-9, we found that only ABT-737 specifically targeted BCL2 proteins and induced apoptosis by activation of caspase-9, as only ABT-737 induced apoptosis was completely inhibited in cells deficient for Bax/Bak or caspase-9. Our data show that only ABT-737 is a specific BCL2 inhibitor and all other compounds investigated were not specific for BCL2 proteins. Furthermore, investigations of the effects of these compounds in primary chronic lymphocytic leukemic cells showed that all compounds induced certain biochemical hallmarks of apoptosis, such as release of cytochrome c and caspase cleavage. However, they all caused strikingly different ultrastructural changes. ABT-737 induced all the characteristic ultrastructural changes of apoptosis together with early rupture of the outer mitochondrial membrane, whereas obatoclax, chlelerythrine and gossypol induced pronounced mitochondrial swelling with formation of phospholipid inclusions. Therefore, we conclude that biochemical measurements used earlier to define apoptosis like mitochondrial release of cytochrome c and caspase cleavage, are insufficient to distinguish between classic apoptosis and other forms of cell death.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Apoptosis*
  • Biphenyl Compounds / pharmacology
  • Caspase 9 / genetics
  • Caspase 9 / metabolism
  • Cell Death
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Fibroblasts / drug effects
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Fibroblasts / ultrastructure
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Humans
  • Jurkat Cells
  • Mice
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondria / ultrastructure
  • Nitrophenols / pharmacology
  • Piperazines / pharmacology
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Sulfonamides / pharmacology
  • bcl-2 Homologous Antagonist-Killer Protein / genetics
  • bcl-2 Homologous Antagonist-Killer Protein / metabolism
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein / genetics
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein / metabolism


  • ABT-737
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Biphenyl Compounds
  • Nitrophenols
  • Piperazines
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Sulfonamides
  • bcl-2 Homologous Antagonist-Killer Protein
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein
  • Caspase 9