SB202190-induced cell type-specific vacuole formation and defective autophagy do not depend on p38 MAP kinase inhibition

PLoS One. 2011;6(8):e23054. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023054. Epub 2011 Aug 10.


SB202190, a widely used inhibitor of p38 MAPKα and β, was recently described to induce autophagic vacuoles and cell death in colon and ovarian cancer cells lines and, therefore, this effect was supposed to be specific for transformed cells and to open therapeutic options. Here, we demonstrate that SB202190 and the structurally related inhibitor SB203580 induce pro-autophagic gene expression and vacuole formation in various cancer and non-cancer cell lines of human, rat, mouse and hamster origin. This effect seems to induce defective autophagy leading to the accumulation of acidic vacuoles, p62 protein and lipid conjugated LC3. Using further p38 inhibitors we show that p38 MAPK inhibition is not sufficient for the autophagic response. In line with these results, expression of a SB202190-resistant mutant of p38α, which significantly increases activity of the p38 pathway under inhibitory conditions, does not block SB202190-dependent vacuole formation, indicating that lack of p38α activity is not necessary for this effect. Obviously, the induction of autophagic vacuole formation by SB203580 and SB202190 is due to off-target effects of these inhibitors on post-translational protein modifications, such as phosphorylation of the MAPKs ERK1/2 and JNK1/2, ribosomal protein S6, and PKB/Akt. Interestingly, the PI3K-inhibitor wortmannin induces transient vacuole formation indicating that the PI3K-PKB/Akt-mTOR pathway is essential for preventing autophagy and that cross-inhibition of this pathway by SB202190 could be the reason for the early part of the effect observed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autophagy / drug effects*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / drug effects
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / pathology
  • Cricetinae
  • Down-Regulation / drug effects
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Imidazoles / pharmacology*
  • Lysosomes / drug effects
  • Lysosomes / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins / metabolism
  • Organ Specificity / drug effects
  • Phagosomes / drug effects
  • Phagosomes / metabolism
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Proteolysis / drug effects
  • Pyridines / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Sirolimus / pharmacology
  • Transcription, Genetic / drug effects
  • Vacuoles / drug effects*
  • Vacuoles / metabolism*
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism


  • Imidazoles
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Pyridines
  • light chain 3, human
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases
  • 4-(4-fluorophenyl)-2-(4-hydroxyphenyl)-5-(4-pyridyl)imidazole
  • Sirolimus