Mechanism of differentiation-enhanced photodynamic therapy for cancer: upregulation of coproporphyrinogen oxidase by C/EBP transcription factors

Mol Cancer Ther. 2013 Aug;12(8):1638-50. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-13-0047. Epub 2013 May 16.


The efficacy of photodynamic therapy (PDT) for epithelial cancers is increased when PDT is combined with calcitriol (Vit D), a form of differentiation therapy (DT). Here, we describe an underlying mechanism for this effect. Differentiation-promoting agents are known to upregulate CCAAT/enhancer-binding proteins (C/EBP), powerful regulators of cellular differentiation. In subcutaneous A431 tumors in mice, pretreatment with Vit D induced the expression of C/EBPβ isoforms, and of coproporphyrinogen oxidase (CPO), a heme pathway enzyme responsible for the conversion of 5-aminolevulinic acid (ALA) into protoporphyrin IX (PpIX), the principal light-absorbing molecule during PDT. To further investigate this apparent link between C/EBPs and CPO, two cell lines (MEL and LNCaP) were exposed to differentiating agents, and levels of PpIX, C/EBPs, and CPO were measured. Differentiating agents, or transfection of C/EBP expression vectors, increased C/EBP and CPO levels in parallel. Focusing on approximately 1,300 bp of upstream CPO gene promoter, we tested the ability of recombinant C/EBPα, C/EBPβ, C/EBPδ, and C/EBPζ to bind to CPO gene sequences [electrophoretic mobility shift assay (EMSA) assays] and to affect transcriptional activity (luciferase assays). Multiple C/EBP consensus binding sites were identified (15 for mouse, 18 for human). Individual probes representing each site bound to C/EBPs with characteristic affinities (strong, moderate, or weak), but when sites were inactivated in the context of the native promoter, transcriptional activity was reduced nearly equally for strong or weak sites. Cooperative interactions between regularly spaced C/EBP sites seem critical for CPO transcriptional regulation by differentiation therapy. These results provide a mechanistic rationale for DT/PDT combination therapy for cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Binding Sites
  • CCAAT-Enhancer-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • CCAAT-Enhancer-Binding Proteins / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Coproporphyrinogen Oxidase / genetics
  • Coproporphyrinogen Oxidase / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Photochemotherapy*
  • Protein Binding
  • Protoporphyrins / biosynthesis
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Up-Regulation


  • CCAAT-Enhancer-Binding Proteins
  • Protoporphyrins
  • protoporphyrin IX
  • Coproporphyrinogen Oxidase