Alkylating agents are a commonly used cytotoxic class of anticancer drugs. Understanding the mechanisms whereby cells respond to these drugs is key to identify means to improve therapy while reducing toxicity. By integrating genome-wide gene expression profiling, protein analysis and functional cell validation, we herein demonstrated a direct relationship between NRF2 and Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) stress pathways in response to alkylating agents, which is coordinated by the availability of glutathione (GSH) pools. GSH is essential for both drug detoxification and protein thiol homeostasis within the ER, thus inhibiting ER stress induction and promoting survival; an effect independent of its antioxidant role. NRF2 accumulation induced by alkylating agents resulted in increased GSH synthesis via GCLC/GCLM enzyme, and interfering with this NRF2 response by either NRF2 knockdown or GCLC/GCLM inhibition with buthionine sulfoximine (BSO) caused accumulation of damaged proteins within the ER, leading to PERK-dependent apoptosis. Conversely, upregulation of NRF2, through KEAP1 depletion or NRF2-myc overexpression, or increasing GSH levels with N-acetylcysteine (NAC) or glutathione-ethyl-ester (GSH-E), decreased ER stress and abrogated alkylating agents-induced cell death. Based on these results, we identified a subset of lung and head-and-neck carcinomas with mutations in either KEAP1 or NRF2/NFE2L2 genes that correlate with NRF2 targets overexpression and poor survival. In KEAP1 mutant cancer cells, NRF2 knockdown and GSH depletion increased cell sensitivity via ER stress induction in a mechanism specific to alkylating drugs. Overall, we show that the NRF2-GSH influence on ER homeostasis implicates defects in NRF2-GSH or ER stress machineries as affecting alkylating therapy toxicity.
- Received May 3, 2016.
- Revision received August 17, 2016.
- Accepted August 25, 2016.
- Copyright ©2016, American Association for Cancer Research.