Background: Muscle atrophy associated with various pathophysiological conditions represents a major health problem, because of its contribution to the deterioration of patient status and its effect on mortality. Although the involvement of pro-inflammatory cytokines in this process is well recognized, the role of sphingolipid metabolism alterations induced by the cytokines has received little attention.
Results: We addressed this question both in vitro using differentiated myotubes treated with TNF-α, and in vivo in a murine model of tumor-induced cachexia. Myotube atrophy induced by TNF-α was accompanied by a substantial increase in cell ceramide levels, and could be mimicked by the addition of exogenous ceramides. It could be prevented by the addition of ceramide-synthesis inhibitors that targeted either the de novo pathway (myriocin), or the sphingomyelinases (GW4869 and 3-O-methylsphingomyelin). In the presence of TNF-α, ceramide-synthesis inhibitors significantly increased protein synthesis and decreased proteolysis. In parallel, they lowered the expression of both the Atrogin-1 and LC3b genes, involved in muscle protein degradation by proteasome and in autophagic proteolysis, respectively, and increased the proportion of inactive, phosphorylated Foxo3 transcription factor. Furthermore, these inhibitors increased the expression and/or phosphorylation levels of key factors regulating protein metabolism, including phospholipase D, an activator of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), and the mTOR substrates S6K1 and Akt. In vivo, C26 carcinoma implantation induced a substantial increase in muscle ceramide, together with drastic muscle atrophy. Treatment of the animals with myriocin reduced the expression of the atrogenes Foxo3 and Atrogin-1, and partially protected muscle tissue from atrophy.
Conclusions: Ceramide accumulation induced by TNF-α or tumor development participates in the mechanism of muscle-cell atrophy, and sphingolipid metabolism is a logical target for pharmacological or nutritional interventions aiming at preserving muscle mass in pathological situations.