Membrane cholesterol delays cellular apoptosis induced by ginsenoside Rh2, a steroid saponin

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Saponins exhibit several biological and pharmacological activities, such as antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects. Many studies attribute their activities to their interactions with cholesterol. In this study, we focus on the steroid saponin ginsenoside Rh2, one of the active principles of Panax ginseng root. Some evidence suggests that lipid rafts, defined as nanodomains enriched in cholesterol and sphingolipids, could be involved in the Rh2-induced apoptosis. However, the role of membrane lipids, especially cholesterol, in this process is still poorly understood. Here, we demonstrate that (i) A549, THP-1 and U937 cells are all susceptible to the Rh2-induced apoptosis but to a differential extent and (ii) the cytotoxic effect inversely correlates with the cell membrane cholesterol content. Upon cholesterol depletion via methyl-β-cyclodextrin, those three cells lines become more sensitive to Rh2-induced apoptosis. Then, focusing on the cholesterol-auxotroph U937 cell line, we showed that Rh2 alters plasma membrane fluidity by compacting the hydrophobic core of lipid bilayer (DPH anisotropy) and relaxing the interfacial packaging of the polar head of phospholipids (TMA-DPH anisotropy). The treatment with Rh2 conducts to the dephosphorylation of Akt and the activation of the intrinsic pathway of apoptosis (loss of mitochondrial membrane potential, caspase-9 and -3 activation). All these features are induced faster in cholesterol-depleted cells, which could be explained by faster cell accumulation of Rh2 in these conditions. This work is the first reporting that membrane cholesterol could delay the activity of ginsenoside Rh2, renewing the idea that saponin cytotoxicity is ascribed to an interaction with membrane cholesterol.HighlightsCholesterol delays the cytotoxicity induced by ginsenoside Rh2.Upon methyl-β-cyclodextrin, cell accumulation of Rh2 is faster.Rh2 alters plasma membrane fluidity.Rh2 induces Akt dephosphorylation and activates mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis.

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