Pro-death and pro-survival properties of ouabain in U937 lymphoma derived cells
© Cuozzo et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2012
Received: 29 October 2012
Accepted: 12 November 2012
Published: 15 November 2012
Epidemiological studies revealed significantly lower mortality rates in cancer patients receiving cardiac glycosides, which turned on interest in the anticancer properties of these drugs. However, cardiac glycosides have also been shown to stimulate cell growth in several cell types. In the present investigation we analyzed the pro-death and pro-survival properties of ouabain in the human lymphoma derived cell line U937.
ROS, intracellular Ca++, cell cycle were evaluated by loading the cells with fluorescent probes under cytofluorimetry. Cell counts and evaluation of trypan blue-excluding cells were performed under optic microscope. Protein detection was done by specific antibodies after protein separation from cellular lysates by SDS-PAGE and transfer blot.
High doses of ouabain cause ROS generation, elevation of [Ca++]i and death of lymphoma derived U937 cells. Lower doses of OUA activate a survival pathway in which plays a role the Na+/Ca++-exchanger (NCX), active in the Ca++ influx mode rather than in the Ca++ efflux mode. Also p38 MAPK plays a pro-survival role. However, the activation of this MAPK does not appear to depend on NCX.
This investigation shows that the cardiac glycoside OUA is cytotoxic also for the lymphoma derived cell line U937 and that can activate a survival pathway in which are involved NCX and p38 MAPK. These molecules can represent potential targets of combined therapy.
KeywordsOuabain Ca++ NCX p38 MAPK Cell death Cell survival Lymphoma
Fetal calf serum
Mitogen-activated protein kinase
Mean fluorescence intensity
Phosphate buffered saline
Radical Oxygen Species
Sodium-dodecyl-sulphate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis
The Na+/K+ ATPase catalyzes the electrogenic exchange of three intracellular Na+ ions for two extracellular K+ ions using for this transport energy that is released from the hydrolysis of ATP. In this way Na+/K+ ATPase plays an important role in the regulation of intracellular Na+ and K+ concentrations and in the maintenance of electrical membrane potential, cell volume, and Na+-coupled transport of amino acids, glucose, nucleotides, and other compounds with low molecular mass [1–3].
Ouabain (OUA) is a cardiac glycoside that has been used for long time for the treatment of cardiac insufficiency. OUA by binding to the α-subunit of Na+/K+ ATPase inhibits it. The inhibition of the Na+/K+ ATPase, reducing the sodium gradient, leads to increased cytosolic [Ca++ probably by impairing the activity of the Na+/Ca++-exchanger (NCX) [4–9]. NCX is one of the main pathways for intracellular Ca++ clearance  and the inhibition of the Na+/K+ ATPase by cardiac glycosides, causing the inversion of the Na+/K+ gradient, leads to impairment of the NCX activity, contributing to accumulation of Ca++[4–9].
Results from epidemiological studies showed significantly lower mortality rates in cancer patients receiving cardiac glycosides, which turned on interest in the antineoplastic properties of these drugs . In various cancer cell lines, including prostate cancer cells or breast tumor cells, cardiac glycosides induce apoptosis [11–16]. These glycosides are considered to be cytotoxic for tumors because malignant cells express high levels of Na+/K+ ATPase α-isoforms, which are inhibited by them . However, cardiac glycosides induce complex signaling cascades that lead to a variety of effects including the induction of proliferation on vascular smooth muscle cells , lymphocytes , prostate cells  and HeLa cells . It appears that cardiac glycosides affect multiple signaling pathways, suggesting that their anti-cancer effect may be multifactorial and context dependent. To clarify the pro-survival or pro-death properties of OUA in the lymphoma derived U937 cells, we set out to investigate how high doses and low doses of the drug affect these parameters. Interestingly, by this means we detected that high doses of OUA are cytotoxic also for U937 cells, while low doses of OUA cause a rise of cytoplasmic Ca++ through NCX which appears to counter cell death. We detected also the activation and the pro-survival role of p38 MAPK upon OUA treatment, which appears to be NCX independent.
RPMI 1640, fetal calf serum, l-glutamine, penicillin-streptomycin, phosphate buffered saline (PBS), ouabain, monensin, tunicamycin and antibodies anti β-actin were from Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, MO, USA). Anisomycin, SB203580 and PD98059 were from Calbiochem (Inalco, Milan, Italy). KB-R7943 was from Tocris (Cookson Inc., Ellisville, MO, USA). Antibodies anti phospho-p38 and anti p38 were from Cell Signaling Technology (Beverly, MA). Horseradish peroxidase (HRP)-conjugated anti-immunoglobulin antibodies, enhanced chemiluminescence (ECL) reagents and Hyperfilm-ECL film were from Amersham (Arlington Heights, IL, USA). Protein standards for SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) and nitrocellulose membranes were from Bio-Rad (Segrate, Milan, Italy). The membrane permeant CDCF-DA and FLUO-3-AM were from Molecular Probes (SIC, Rome, Italy), and other reagents were of the highest purity and purchased from Bio-Rad or Sigma.
Cell viability and growth
U937 cells, derived from the pleural effusion of a patient with histiocytic lymphoma , were grown in complete medium (RPMI-1640 medium supplemented with 1.0% sodium pyruvate, 5% FCS, 2 μM glutamine, 100 units/ml penicillin and 100 μg/ml streptomycin) at 37°C, in fully humidified atmosphere 95% room air/5% CO2. Cells were resuspended three times a week in fresh complete medium as 3×105/ml. Cell growth was evaluated by hemocytometry counts of cells excluding Trypan blue (0.04% Trypan blue in PBS, w/v), and viability was assessed by calculating alive (trypan blue-excluding) cells as percentage of all cells counted. Cells used in every experiment were ≥93% viable and taken from cultures in exponential growth. They were washed once and resuspended in complete medium, 1×106/ml, and transferred to 24-well microplates. They were then treated with inhibitors or vehicles, incubated for 30 min, and susequently exposed to test agents or, again, to vehicles. At the end of each experiment, the cells were gently mixed and aliquots were taken for cell counting and cell cycle analysis. The vehicles, even when used in combination, were ≤0.3% (v/v) and did not modify any investigated parameter in comparison with control culture.
Flow cytometric analysis of cell death
Nuclear DNA fragmentation was quantified by flow cytometry of hypodiploic (subG1) DNA after cell fixation and staining with PI [23, 24]. Briefly, cells were washed with PBS, pelletted and fixed in ice cold ethanol/water (70/30, v/v) for 1 h, pelletted again and washed twice with PBS, and finally resuspended in PBS containing RNAse (20 μg/ml) and PI (100 μg/ml). Events in the different cell cycle phases were gated manually using an EPICS XL cytofluorimeter (Beckman Coulter, Hialeah, Fl, USA). At least 10.000 events/sample were acquired. Collected data were analysed using the Multicycle software for DNA content and cell cycle analysis (Phoenix Flow System, San Diego, CA, USA). The subG1 events representative of the apoptotic cells, and the events in the other cell cycle phases, are given as a percentage of the total cell population.
Western blot analysis
Whole cell lysates were prepared as previously described [25, 26]. Briefly, the cells were kept for 30 min on ice in lysis buffer (NaCl 150 mM, CaCl2 1 mM, MgCl2 1 mM, NaN3 0.1%, NaF 10 mM, Triton X-100 1% (v/v), ortovanadate 1 mM, aprotinin 2 μg/ml, leupeptin 2 μg/ml, iodoacetamide 10 mM, PMSF 2 mM, and pepstatin 20 μM). The appropriate volumes of 4xSDS-sample buffer and 2-mercaptoethanol 5% (v/v) were then added. Cell lysates were briefly sonicated, warmed at 95°C for 5 min, and cleared by centrifugation at 14.000-g in a microfuge for 15 min at 4°C. Supernatants were collected and proteins were quantified by RC DC protein assay. Equal amounts of proteins were separated from the different samples by SDS-PAGE, and blotted onto nitrocellulose membranes. Anisomycin treated U937 cells were used as positive control for phospho-p38 MAPK detection. Transfer efficiency was checked with Ponceau staining. The blots were blocked in Tris-buffered saline (TBS), containing BSA 2 % (w/v), probed with specific primary antibodies, washed with PBS-Tween 20, and then incubated with a peroxidase-conjugated secondary antibody. Finally, each membrane was probed to detect β–actin. The final dilutions and incubation times suggested by the manufacturer were used for each antibody. Immunodetection was performed using the ECL reagents and Hyperfilm-ECL film.
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) and cytosolic Ca++ detection
CDCF-DA is an oxidation sensitive fluorescent probe, which is first deacetylated inside the cells to the nonfluorescent compound 2’,7’-CDCFH and subsequently can be oxidized to the fluorescent compound 2’,7’-CDCF by a variety of peroxides. For the detection of intracellular Ca++ ions we used the calcium-specific probe FLUO-3-AM. These probes were dissolved in anhydrous DMSO at a concentration of 100 mM for CDCF-DA and 1 mM for FLUO-3-AM.
U937 cells were incubated with CDCF-DA (50 μM) or FLUO-3-AM (10 μM) for 30 min. Care was taken that the final DMSO concentration did not exceed 0.1% (v/v). After loading with the probes U937 cells were pelletted, resuspended in complete medium, 1x106/ml, and pretreated or not with KBR (10 μM) or Nifedipine (10 μM) and treated with ouabain for 30 min. ROS or Ca++-derived fluorescent signals were detected by flow cytometry (EPICS XL), with excitation and emission settings at 495 and 525 nm, respectively. Fluorescent cells were analyzed on a log scale (FL1) and recorded as mean fluorescence intensity (MFI) of the whole cell population. A minimum of 10.000 events were examined for each sample.
Results are expressed as the means±standard deviation (SD) of repeated experiments, as indicated in the Figure legends. Statistical differences were evaluated using paired 2-tailed Student’s t test. Differences were considered statistically significant for values of P≤0.05.
Effects of low and high doses of ouabain on U937 cells viability
These results suggest that OUA ≥500 nM causes U937 cell death, while OUA 100 nM does not allow cell growth and causes activation of a survival pathway in most U937 cells, increasing the time spent in the G1 cell cycle phase.
Ouabain causes ROS generation and Ca++ elevation
NCX is one of the main pathways for intracellular Ca++ clearance . However, the inhibition of the Na+/K+ ATPase by cardiac glycosides, causing the inversion of the Na+/K+ gradient, leads to impairment of the NCX activity and as a consequence to accumulation of Ca++[4–9]. We set out to investigate if NCX was involved in the observed increase of cytoplasmic Ca++ following OUA treatment of U937 cells. At this end we used KB-R7943 (KBR) which blocks the Ca++ influx mode of NCX rather than the Ca++ efflux mode [30, 31]. This inhibitor (10 μM) prevented completely the increase of [Ca++ i caused by OUA (Figure 2c), while the L-type Ca++ channel blocker nifedipine (Nif) (10 μM) was ineffective (Figure 2c).
These results were obtained with ouabain either 500 nM or 100 μM, suggesting that also at low concentration OUA impairs NCX, with the result of Ca++ entry in the cells.
NCX promotes cell survival
Hence, such results allow us to conclude that NCX plays an important role in the pro-survival pathway induced by OUA or monensin.
Ouabain induces activation of p38 MAPK which plays a pro-survival role
To confirm MAPK involvement in the survival pathway activated by the glycoside (100 nM), we performed time-kinetics studies in which phosphorylated p38 and then total p38 were analyzed by western blot with specific antibodies. A faint band of 38 kDa of phospho-p38 proteins was detected in the lysate of untreated U937 cells (Figure 4c), which increased after 1 h, and was still present after 3 and 6 h. When probed with antibodies against total p38, the 38 kDa band showed no change at the investigated time points of OUA treatment, in comparison with that observed in the lysate of untreated cells (Figure 4c). Thus, OUA 100 nM activates p38 MAPK in U937 cells.
Then, we investigated the involvement of NCX in the phosphorylation of p38. However, we did not detect a difference in the band of phospho-p38 in the lysate of cells pretreated with KBR and then with OUA, in comparison with the band observed in the lysate of OUA treated cells (Figure 4c).
Thus, these results suggest that, although p38 plays a pro-survival role in OUA treated cells, its activation is NCX independent.
The first aim of our investigation was to evaluate if OUA is cytotoxic for U937 cells and we detected that at concentrations ≥500 nM it causes ROS generation and a large increase of [Ca++]i followed by cell death. We did not explore the link between ROS generation, Ca++ increase and cell demise, as it is not surprising that this intracellular milieu can lead to cell death. We were surprised by the survival pathway sparked by lower doses of OUA in which a modest rise of Ca++ seems to play an important role. Indeed, U937 cells exposed to ouabain 100 nM were growth arrested in G1 cell cycle phase and escaped from death by activation of a survival pathway, in which were involved the Na+/Ca++-exchanger active in the Ca++ influx mode and p38 MAPK.
It is widely accepted that partial inhibition of the cardiac myocyte Na+/K+-ATPase by cardiac glycosides causes a modest increase of [Na+ i, which in turn affects the plasma membrane Na+/Ca++-exchanger, leading to a significant increase of [Ca++ i and in the force of contraction [4–9]. In the present investigation we show that in U937 cells OUA leads to a rise of [Ca++ i through NCX active in the Ca++ influx mode because this event could be prevented by KBR, an inhibitor known to affect only this type of NCX activity [30, 31]. Moreover, OUA became largely cytotoxic after NCX inhibition and not after block of L-type Ca++ channel by nifedipine. These conclusions were confirmed treating the cells with the Na+ ionophore monensin which, similarly to OUA, causes an increase of [Ca++ i through NCX active in the Ca++ influx mode. Finally, the endoplasmic reticulum stressor tunicamycin, not affecting NCX, proved to be a good control because it induced cell death in a low proportion of cells, not increased by KBR.
MAPK are central mediators of cellular survival and death pathways [33–36]. To investigate their involvement in the survival pathway activated by OUA, we pretreated the cells with inhibitors at concentrations affecting specifically one MAPK and then analyzed cell viability. These experiments indicated that p38 plays a pro-survival role in OUA treated cells. It has been reported that a phospholipase A2 (PLA2), modified in order to loose the catalytic activity, can induce apoptosis in U937 cells through a catalytic activity-independent pathway, in which plays a relevant role the activation of p38 MAPK dependent on the elevation of intracellular Ca++ levels . However, those results are different from ours, as nifedipine abrogated Ca++ increase and rescued viability of U937 cells, while we observed that nifedipine does not abrogate Ca++ rise and does not modify cell viability, while KBR prevents Ca++ rise and increases cell death. Thus, we would roule out the involvement of a PLA2 catalytic activity-independent pathway in the activation of p38 by ouabain, even if we did not detect the link between NCX and p38 phosphorylation.
At the present we can affirm that OUA activates a pro-survival pathway in which NCX active in the Ca++ influx mode is necessary, but we cannot conclude that is essential the [Ca++]i rise. We can speculate that Ca++ influx through NCX may function as a second messanger responsible of a molecular pathway leading to cell survival.
This work shows that the cardiac glycoside OUA is cytotoxic also for the lymphoma derived cell line U937 and suggests to consider that at lower concentration this drug activates a survival pathway in which NCX and p38 MAPK can represent potential targets of combined therapy.
This work was in part supported by grants to LDR from Sapienza Ateneo 2010 and 2011 (18.104.22.168.32.5 and 22.214.171.124.34.1).
We thank Mr Sandro Valia for help with photographic work.
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