DJ-1 mediates the resistance of cancer cells to dihydroartemisinin through reactive oxygen species removal

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Dihydroartemisinin (DHA), one of the main metabolites of artemisinin and its derivatives, presents anti-cancer potential in vitro and in vivo. To explore the mechanisms of resistance toward DHA, a DHA-resistant cell line, HeLa/DHA, was established with a resistance factor of 7.26 in vitro. Upon DHA treatment, apoptotic cells were significantly elicited in parental HeLa cells but minimally induced in HeLa/DHA cells. HeLa/DHA cells also displayed much less sensitivity to DHA-induced tumor suppression in cancer xenograft models than HeLa cells. Intriguingly, DHA-resistant cells did not display a multidrug-resistant phenotype. Based on a proteomic study employing LC–ESI–MS/MS together with pathway analysis, DJ-1 (PARK7) was found to be highly expressed in HeLa/DHA cells. Western blot and immunofluorescence assays confirmed the higher expression of DJ-1 in HeLa/DHA cells than in parental cells in both cell line and xenograft models. DJ-1 is translocated to the mitochondria of HeLa/DHA cells and oxidized, providing DJ-1 with stronger cytoprotection activity. Further study revealed that DJ-1 knockdown in HeLa/DHA cells abolished the observed resistance, whereas overexpression of DJ-1 endowed the parental HeLa cells with resistance toward DHA. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) were also significantly induced by either DHA or hydrogen peroxide in HeLa cells but not in resistant HeLa/DHA cells. When the cells were pretreated with N-acetyl-l-cysteine, the effect of DJ-1 knockdown on sensitizing HeLa/DHA cells to DHA was significantly attenuated. In summary, our study suggests that overexpression and mitochondrial translocation of DJ-1 provides HeLa/DHA cells with resistance to DHA-induced ROS and apoptosis.

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