Reversing glioma malignancy: a new look at the role of antidepressant drugs as adjuvant therapy for glioblastoma multiforme

Cancer Chemother Pharmacol. 2017 Jun;79(6):1249-1256. doi: 10.1007/s00280-017-3329-2. Epub 2017 May 12.


Purpose: The role of glioma stem cells (GSCs) in cancer progression is currently debated; however, it is hypothesised that this subpopulation is partially responsible for therapeutic resistance observed in glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). Recent studies have shown that the current treatments not only fail to eliminate the GSC population but even promote GSCs through reprogramming of glioma non-stem cells to stem cells. Since the standard GBM treatment often requires supplementation with adjuvant drugs such as antidepressants, their role in the regulation of the heterogeneous nature of GSCs needs evaluation.

Methods: We examined the effects of imipramine, amitriptyline, fluoxetine, mirtazapine, agomelatine, escitalopram, and temozolomide on the phenotypic signature (CD44, Ki67, Nestin, Sox1, and Sox2 expression) of GSCs isolated from a human T98G cell line. These drugs were examined in several models of hypoxia (1% oxygen, 2.5% oxygen, and a hypoxia-reoxygenation model) as compared to the standard laboratory conditions (20% oxygen).

Results: We report that antidepressant drugs, particularly imipramine and amitriptyline, modulate plasticity, silence the GSC profile, and partially reverse the malignant phenotype of GBM. Moreover, we observed that, in contrast to temozolomide, these tricyclic antidepressants stimulated viability and mitochondrial activity in normal human astrocytes.

Conclusion: The ability of phenotype switching from GSC to non-GSC as stimulated by antidepressants (primarily imipramine and amitriptyline) sheds new light on the heterogeneous nature of GSC, as well as the role of antidepressants in adjuvant GBM therapy.

Keywords: Adjuvant therapy in glioma; Antidepressant drugs in glioma therapy; Glioma malignancy; Glioma stem cells.

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Alkylating / pharmacology
  • Brain Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Brain Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Dacarbazine / analogs & derivatives
  • Dacarbazine / pharmacology
  • Glioblastoma / drug therapy*
  • Glioblastoma / pathology
  • Glioma / drug therapy*
  • Glioma / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / pathology
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells
  • Temozolomide
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Alkylating
  • Dacarbazine
  • Temozolomide