Small-Molecule Procaspase-3 Activation Sensitizes Cancer to Treatment with Diverse Chemotherapeutics

ACS Cent Sci. 2016 Aug 24;2(8):545-59. doi: 10.1021/acscentsci.6b00165. Epub 2016 Jul 25.


Conventional chemotherapeutics remain essential treatments for most cancers, but their combination with other anticancer drugs (including targeted therapeutics) is often complicated by unpredictable synergies and multiplicative toxicities. As cytotoxic anticancer chemotherapeutics generally function through induction of apoptosis, we hypothesized that a molecularly targeted small molecule capable of facilitating a central and defining step in the apoptotic cascade, the activation of procaspase-3 to caspase-3, would broadly and predictably enhance activity of cytotoxic drugs. Here we show that procaspase-activating compound 1 (PAC-1) enhances cancer cell death induced by 15 different FDA-approved chemotherapeutics, across many cancer types and chemotherapeutic targets. In particular, the promising combination of PAC-1 and doxorubicin induces a synergistic reduction in tumor burden and enhances survival in murine tumor models of osteosarcoma and lymphoma. This PAC-1/doxorubicin combination was evaluated in 10 pet dogs with naturally occurring metastatic osteosarcoma or lymphoma, eliciting a biologic response in 3 of 6 osteosarcoma patients and 4 of 4 lymphoma patients. Importantly, in both mice and dogs, coadministration of PAC-1 with doxorubicin resulted in no additional toxicity. On the basis of the mode of action of PAC-1 and the high expression of procaspase-3 in many cancers, these results suggest the combination of PAC-1 with cytotoxic anticancer drugs as a potent and general strategy to enhance therapeutic response.