Erastin and erastin-like compounds revert tubulin-dependent VDAC inhibition to increase VDAC conductance, leading to mitochondrial hyperpolarization (↑ΔΨm), mitochondrial ROS generation (ROSm) blocked by NAC and MitoQ, mitochondrial dysfunction, and ferroptotic cell death.
Enhancement of aerobic glycolysis and suppression of mitochondrial metabolism characterize the pro-proliferative Warburg phenotype of cancer cells. High free tubulin in cancer cells closes voltage dependent anion channels (VDAC) to decrease mitochondrial membrane potential (ΔΨ), an effect antagonized by erastin, the canonical promotor of ferroptosis. Previously, we identified six compounds (X1–X6) that also block tubulin-dependent mitochondrial depolarization. Here, we hypothesized that VDAC opening after erastin and X1–X6 increases mitochondrial metabolism and reactive oxygen species (ROS) formation, leading to ROS-dependent mitochondrial dysfunction, bioenergetic failure and cell death. Accordingly, we characterized erastin and the two most potent structurally unrelated lead compounds, X1 and X4, on ROS formation, mitochondrial function and cell viability. Erastin, X1 and X4 increased ΔΨ followed closely by an increase in mitochondrial ROS generation within 30–60 min. Subsequently, mitochondria began to depolarize after an hour or longer indicative of mitochondrial dysfunction. N-acetylcysteine (NAC, glutathione precursor and ROS scavenger) and MitoQ (mitochondrially targeted antioxidant) blocked increased ROS formation after X1 and prevented mitochondrial dysfunction. Erastin, X1 and X4 selectively promoted cell killing in HepG2 and Huh7 human hepatocarcinoma cells compared to primary rat hepatocytes. X1 and X4-dependent cell death was blocked by NAC. These results suggest that ferroptosis induced by erastin and our erastin-like lead compounds was caused by VDAC opening, leading to increased ΔΨ, mitochondrial ROS generation and oxidative stress-induced cell death.