Autophagy as a mediator of chemotherapy-induced cell death in cancer

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Since the 1940s, chemotherapy has been the treatment of choice for metastatic disease. Chemotherapeutic agents target proliferating cells, inducing cell death. For most of the history of chemotherapy, apoptosis was thought to be the only mechanism of drug-induced cell death. More recently, a second type of cell death pathway has emerged: autophagy, also called type II programmed cell death. Autophagy is a tightly regulated process by which selected components of a cell are degraded. It primarily functions as a cell survival adaptive mechanism during stress conditions. However, persistent stress can also promote extensive autophagy, leading to cell death, hence its name. Alterations in the autophagy pathway have been described in cancer cells that suggest a tumor-suppressive function in early tumorigenesis, but a tumor-promoting function in established tumors. Moreover, accumulating data indicate a role for autophagy in chemotherapy-induced cancer cell death. Here, we discuss some of the evidence showing autophagy-dependent cell death induced by anti-neoplastic agents in different cancer models. On the other hand, in some other examples, autophagy dampens treatment efficacy, hence providing a therapeutic target to enhance cancer cell killing. In this paper, we propose a putative mechanism that could reconcile these two opposite observations.

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