Induction of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-CoA reductase mediates statin resistance in breast cancer cells

Cell Death Dis. 2019 Jan 28;10(2):91. doi: 10.1038/s41419-019-1322-x.


The mevalonate pathway has emerged as a promising target for several solid tumors. Statins are inhibitors of the 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-CoA reductase (HMGCR), the rate-limiting enzyme of this pathway, and are commonly used to treat patients with hypercholesterolemia. Pleiotropic antitumor mechanisms of statins have been demonstrated for several human cancer types. However, cancer cells differ in their individual statin sensitivity and some cell lines have shown relative resistance. In this study we demonstrate, that the human breast cancer cell lines MDA-MB-231, MDA-MB-468, MCF-7, and T47D are differentially affected by statins. Whereas the vitality of MDA-MB-231 and MDA-MB-468 cells was reduced by up to 60% using atorvastatin, simvastatin, or rosuvastatin (p < 0.001), only marginal effects were seen in T47D and MCF-7 cells following exposure to statins. Statin treatment led to an upregulation of HMGCR mRNA and protein expression by up to sixfolds in the statin-resistant cells lines (p < 0.001), but no alterations of HMGCR were observed in the statin-sensitive MDA-MB-231 and MDA-MB-468 cells. The knockdown of HMGCR prior to statin treatment sensitized the resistant cell lines, reflected by a 70% reduction in vitality, increased apoptotic DNA fragmentation (sixfold) and by accumulation of the apoptosis marker cleaved poly-ADP ribose polymerase. Statins induced a cleavage of the sterol-regulatory element-binding protein (SREBP)-2, a transcriptional activator of the HMGCR, in T47D and MCF-7 cells. The inhibition of SREBP-2 activation by co-administration of dipyridamole sensitized MCF-7 and T47D cells for statins (loss of vitality by 80%; p < 0.001). Furthermore, assessment of a statin-resistant MDA-MB-231 clone, generated by long-term sublethal statin exposure, revealed a significant induction of HMGCR expression by up to 12-folds (p < 0.001). Knockdown of HMGCR restored statin sensitivity back to levels of the parental cells. In conclusion, these results indicate a resistance of cancer cells against statins, which is in part due to the induction of HMGCR.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Enzyme Induction
  • Female
  • Gene Expression
  • Humans
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl CoA Reductases / biosynthesis
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl CoA Reductases / genetics
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl CoA Reductases / metabolism*
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA Reductase Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • MCF-7 Cells


  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA Reductase Inhibitors
  • HMGCR protein, human
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl CoA Reductases