Nickel-induced HIF-1α promotes growth arrest and senescence in normal human cells but lacks toxic effects in transformed cells
Nickel is a human carcinogen that acts as a hypoxia mimic by activating the transcription factor HIF-1α and hypoxia-like transcriptomic responses. Hypoxia and elevated HIF-1α are typically associated with drug resistance in cancer cells, which is caused by increased drug efflux and other mechanisms. Here we examined the role of HIF-1α in uptake of soluble Ni(II) and Ni(II)-induced cell fate outcomes using si/shRNA knockdowns and gene deletion models. We found that HIF-1α had no effect on accumulation of Ni(II) in two transformed (H460, A549) and two normal human cell lines (IMR90, WI38). The loss of HIF-1α also produced no significant impact on p53-dependent and p53-independent apoptotic responses or clonogenic survival of Ni(II)-treated transformed cells. In normal human cells, HIF-1α enhanced the ability of Ni(II) to inhibit cell proliferation and cause a permanent growth arrest (senescence). Consistent with its growth-suppressive effects, HIF-1α was important for upregulation of the cell cycle inhibitors p21 (CDKN1A) and p27 (CDKN1B). Irrespective of HIF-1α status, Ni(II) strongly increased levels of MYC protein but did not change protein expression of the cell cycle-promoting phosphatase CDC25A or the CDK inhibitor p16. Our findings indicate that HIF-1α limits propagation of Ni(II)-damaged normal cells, suggesting that it may act in a tumor suppressor-like manner during early stages of Ni(II) carcinogenesis.