Nrf2 activation ameliorates cytotoxic effects of arsenic trioxide in acute promyelocytic leukemia cells through increased glutathione levels and arsenic efflux from cells

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Carnosic acid (CA), a phenolic diterpene isolated from Rosmarinus officinalis, has been shown to activate nuclear transcription factor E2-related factor 2 (Nrf2), which plays a central role in cytoprotective responses to oxidative and electrophilic stress.

Recently, the Nrf2-Kelch ECH associating protein 1 (Keap1) pathway has been associated with cancer drug resistance attributable to modulation of the expression and activation of antioxidant and detoxification enzymes. However, the exact mechanisms by which Nrf2 activation results in chemoresistance are insufficiently understood to date.

This study investigated the mechanisms by which the cytotoxic effects of arsenic trioxide (ATO), an anticancer drug, were decreased in acute promyelocytic leukemia cells treated with CA, a typical activator of Nrf2 used to stimulate the Nrf2/Keap1 system.

Our findings suggest that arsenic is non-enzymatically incorporated into NB4 cells and forms complexes that are dependent on intracellular glutathione (GSH) concentrations. In addition, the arsenic complexes are recognized as substrates by multidrug resistance proteins and subsequently excreted from the cells. Therefore, Nrf2-associated activation of the GSH biosynthetic pathway, followed by increased levels of intracellular GSH, are key mechanisms underlying accelerated arsenic efflux and attenuation of the cytotoxic effects of ATO.

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