6-Formylindolo (3,2-b)carbazole (FICZ) enhances retinoic acid (RA)-induced differentiation of HL-60 myeloblastic leukemia cells

Mol Cancer. 2013 May 9;12:39. doi: 10.1186/1476-4598-12-39.


Background: The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) ligand 6-Formylindolo(3,2-b)carbazole (FICZ) has received increasing attention since its identification as an endogenous AhR ligand and a photoproduct of tryptophan. FICZ and its metabolites have been detected in human fluids. We recently reported that AhR promotes retinoic acid (RA)-induced granulocytic differentiation of HL-60 myeloblastic leukemia cells by restricting the nuclear abundance of the stem cell associated transcription factor Oct4. The standard clinical management of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is differentiation induction therapy using RA. But RA is not effective for other myeloid leukemias, making the mechanism of RA-induced differentiation observed in a non-APL myeloid leukemia of interest. To our knowledge, this is the first study regarding the influence of FICZ on RA-induced differentiation in any type of leukemic blasts.

Methods: Using flow cytometry and Western blotting assays, we determined the effects of FICZ on RA-induced differentiation of HL-60 human leukemia cells. All experiments were performed in triplicate. The groups RA and FICZ + RA were compared using the Paired-Samples T-Test. Western blot figures present the typical blots.

Results: We demonstrate that FICZ enhances RA-induced differentiation, assessed by the expression of the membrane differentiation marker CD11b; cell cycle arrest; and the functional differentiation marker, inducible-oxidative metabolism. FICZ causes changes in signaling events that are known to drive differentiation, and notably augments the RA-induced sustained activation of the RAF/MEK/ERK axis of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) cascade. FICZ also augments expression of the known MAPK signaling regulatory molecules c-Cbl, VAV1, pY458 p85 PI3K, Src-family kinases (SFKs), and IRF-1, a transcription factor associated with this putative signalsome that promotes RA-induced differentiation. Moreover, FICZ in combination with RA also increases expression of AhR and even more so of both Cyp1A2 and p47phox, which are known to be transcriptionally regulated by AhR. pY1021 PDGFRβ, a marker associated with retinoic acid syndrome was also increased.

Conclusions: Our data suggest that FICZ modulates intracellular signaling pathways and enhances RA-induced differentiation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carbazoles / pharmacology*
  • Cell Cycle / drug effects
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects*
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics
  • Drug Synergism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Leukemic / drug effects
  • HL-60 Cells
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / genetics
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / metabolism*
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / pathology*
  • Ligands
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Phosphorylation / drug effects
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-raf / metabolism
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Tretinoin / pharmacology*


  • 6-formylindolo(3,2-b)carbazole
  • Carbazoles
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon
  • Tretinoin
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-raf
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases