Multikinase inhibitor sorafenib inhibits proliferation and angiogenesis of tumors by suppressing the Raf/MEK/ERK signaling pathway and VEGF receptor tyrosine kinase. It significantly prolongs median survival of patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) but the response is disease-stabilizing and cytostatic rather than one of tumor regression. To examine the mechanisms underlying the relative resistance in HCC, we investigated the role of autophagy, an evolutionarily conserved self-digestion pathway, in hepatoma cells in vitro and in vivo. Sorafenib treatment led to accumulation of autophagosomes as evidenced by conversion from LC3-I to LC3-II observed by immunoblot in Huh7, HLF and PLC/PRF/5 cells. This induction was due to activation of autophagic flux, as there was further increase in LC3-II expression upon treatment with lysosomal inhibitors, clear decline of the autophagy substrate p62, and an mRFP-GFP-LC3 fluorescence change in sorafenib-treated hepatoma cells. Sorafenib inhibited the mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 and its inhibition led to accumulation of LC3-II. Pharmacological inhibition of autophagic flux by chloroquine increased apoptosis and decreased cell viability in hepatoma cells. siRNA-mediated knockdown of the ATG7 gene also sensitized hepatoma cells to sorafenib. Finally, sorafenib induced autophagy in Huh7 xenograft tumors in nude mice and coadministration with chloroquine significantly suppressed tumor growth compared with sorafenib alone. In conclusion, sorafenib administration induced autophagosome formation and enhanced autophagic activity, which conferred a survival advantage to hepatoma cells. Concomitant inhibition of autophagy may be an attractive strategy for unlocking the antitumor potential of sorafenib in HCC.
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