Nrf2 signaling and autophagy are complementary in protecting breast cancer cells during glucose deprivation

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Abstract

Autophagy can serve as a mechanism for survival of cells during nutrient deprivation by recycling cellular macromolecules and organelles transiently to provide essential metabolic substrates. However, autophagy itself causes metabolic stress to cells, and other cellular protective mechanisms likely cooperate with autophagy to promote cell survival during nutrient deprivation. In this study, we explored protective mechanisms in breast cancer cells in the setting of glucose deprivation. While breast cancer cells (MCF7 and T47D) survive in glucose-free medium for three days or more, autophagy is induced in this setting. Blocking autophagy pharmacologically with chloroquine or by knock-out of an essential autophagy gene, such as Beclin 1 or ATG7, markedly reduces the ability of cells to survive during glucose deprivation. Autophagy previously was shown to degrade p62, a protein that sequesters KEAP1, and KEAP1 in turn sequesters Nrf2, a master regulator of the antioxidant response. Hence, we investigated how the Nrf2 signaling pathway might be affected by glucose deprivation and autophagy. We found that while glucose deprivation does cause decreased cellular levels of p62, Nrf2 protein levels and activity unexpectedly increase in this setting. Moreover, this increase in Nrf2 activity provides important protection to breast cancer cells during glucose deprivation, since siRNA knockdown of Nrf2 markedly impairs survival during glucose deprivation. Antioxidants, N-acetyl cysteine and glutathione also protect these cells during glucose deprivation, leading us to conclude that Nrf2 signaling via its antioxidant activity has a critical and previously undescribed role of protecting cells during glucose deprivation-induced autophagy.

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