Introduction: The taxanes paclitaxel and docetaxel are widely used in the treatment of breast, ovarian, and other cancers. Although their cytotoxicity has been attributed to cell-cycle arrest through stabilization of microtubules, the mechanisms by which tumor cells die remains unclear. Paclitaxel has been shown to induce soluble tumor necrosis factor alpha (sTNF-α) production in macrophages, but the involvement of TNF production in taxane cytotoxicity or resistance in tumor cells has not been established. Our study aimed to correlate alterations in the TNF pathway with taxane cytotoxicity and the acquisition of taxane resistance.
Methods: MCF-7 cells or isogenic drug-resistant variants (developed by selection for surviving cells in increasing concentrations of paclitaxel or docetaxel) were assessed for sTNF-α production in the absence or presence of taxanes by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and for sensitivity to docetaxel or sTNF-α by using a clonogenic assay (in the absence or presence of TNFR1 or TNFR2 neutralizing antibodies). Nuclear factor (NF)-κB activity was also measured with ELISA, whereas gene-expression changes associated with docetaxel resistance in MCF-7 and A2780 cells were determined with microarray analysis and quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RTqPCR).
Results: MCF-7 and A2780 cells increased production of sTNF-α in the presence of taxanes, whereas docetaxel-resistant variants of MCF-7 produced high levels of sTNF-α, although only within a particular drug-concentration threshold (between 3 and 45 nM). Increased production of sTNF-α was NF-κB dependent and correlated with decreased sensitivity to sTNF-α, decreased levels of TNFR1, and increased survival through TNFR2 and NF-κB activation. The NF-κB inhibitor SN-50 reestablished sensitivity to docetaxel in docetaxel-resistant MCF-7 cells. Gene-expression analysis of wild-type and docetaxel-resistant MCF-7, MDA-MB-231, and A2780 cells identified changes in the expression of TNF-α-related genes consistent with reduced TNF-induced cytotoxicity and activation of NF-κB survival pathways.
Conclusions: We report for the first time that taxanes can promote dose-dependent sTNF-α production in tumor cells at clinically relevant concentrations, which can contribute to their cytotoxicity. Defects in the TNF cytotoxicity pathway or activation of TNF-dependent NF-κB survival genes may, in contrast, contribute to taxane resistance in tumor cells. These findings may be of strong clinical significance.