Research Papers:

Atg7- and Keap1-dependent autophagy protects breast cancer cell lines against mitoquinone-induced oxidative stress

Yanira Gonzalez, Baikuntha Aryal, Leena Chehab and V Ashutosh Rao _

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Oncotarget. 2014; 5:1526-1537. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.1715

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Yanira Gonzalez, Baikuntha Aryal, Leena Chehab, V. Ashutosh Rao

Division of Therapeutic Proteins, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Food and Drug Administration


V. Ashutosh Rao, e-mail: ashutosh.rao@fda.hhs.gov

Running Title: Antioxidant and cytoprotective autophagy by Atg7/Keap1

Keywords: autophagy, reactive oxygen species, mitoquinone, breast cancer

Received: December 18, 2013      Accepted: March 08, 2014      Published: March 12, 2014


The interplay between oxidative stress and autophagy is critical for determining the fate of cancer cells exposed to redox-active and cytotoxic chemotherapeutic agents. Mitoquinone (MitoQ), a mitochondrially-targeted redox-active ubiquinone conjugate, selectively kills breast cancer cells over healthy mammary epithelial cells. We reported previously that MitoQ, although a derivative of the antioxidant ubiquinone, can generate excess ROS and trigger the Keap1-Nrf2 antioxidant response in the MDA-MB-231 cell line. Following MitoQ treatment, a greater number of cells underwent autophagy than apoptosis. However, the relationship between MitoQ-induced oxidative stress and autophagy as a primary cellular response was unclear. In this report, we demonstrate that MitoQ induces autophagy related gene 7 (Atg7)-dependent, yet Beclin-1-independent, autophagy marked by an increase in LC3-II. Both the ATG7-deficient human MDA-MB-231 cells and Atg7-knockout mouse embryonic fibroblasts exhibited lower levels of autophagy following MitoQ treatment than their respective wild-type counterparts. Increased apoptosis was confirmed in these autophagy-deficient isogenic cell line pairs, indicating that autophagy was attempted for survival in wild type cell lines. Furthermore, we observed higher levels of ROS in Atg7-deficient cells, as measured by hydroethidine oxidation. In Atg7-deficient cells, redox-sensitive Keap1 degradation was decreased, suggesting autophagy- and Atg7-dependent degradation of Keap1. Conversely, downregulation of Keap1 decreased autophagy levels, increased Nrf2 activation, upregulated cytoprotective antioxidant gene expression, and caused accumulation of p62, suggesting a feedback loop between ROS-regulated Keap1-Nrf2 and Atg7-regulated autophagy. Our data indicate that excessive ROS causes the upregulation of autophagy, and autophagy acts as an antioxidant feedback response triggered by cytotoxic levels of MitoQ.

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