Combination phenylbutyrate/gemcitabine therapy effectively inhibits in vitro and in vivo growth of NSCLC by intrinsic apoptotic pathways

Bodo Schniewind1, Kirsten Heintz2, Roland Kurdow1, Ole Ammerpohl2, Anna Trauzold2, Doris Emme2, Peter Dohrmann1, Holger Kalthoff2
1Hospital for General and Thoracic Surgery, Schleswig-Holstein University Hospitals, Campus Kiel, Arnold-Heller-Str 7, Kiel, Germany
2Molecular Oncology Section, Schleswig-Holstein University Hospitals, Campus Kiel, Arnold-Heller-Str 7, Kiel, Germany
DOI: 10.1186/1477-3163-5-25


Background: Standard chemotherapy protocols in NSCLC are of limited clinical benefit. Histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors represent a new strategy in human cancer therapy. In this study the combination of the HDAC inhibitor phenylbutyrate (PB) and the nucleoside analogue gemcitabine (GEM) was evaluated and the mechanisms underlying increased cell death were analyzed.
Methods: Dose escalation studies evaluating the cytotoxicity of PB (0.01-100 mM), GEM (0.01-100 μg/ml) and a combination of the two were performed on two NSCLC cell lines (BEN and KNS62). Apoptotic cell death was quantified. The involvement of caspase-dependent cell death and MAP-kinase activation was analyzed. Additionally, mitochondrial damage was determined. In an orthotopic animal model the combined effect of PB and GEM on therapy was analyzed.
Results: Applied as a single drug both GEM and PB revealed limited potential to induce apoptosis in KNS62 and Ben cells. Combination therapy was 50-80% (p = 0.012) more effective than either agent alone. On the caspase level, combination therapy significantly increased cleavage of the pro-forms compared to single chemotherapy. The broad spectrum caspase-inhibitor zVAD was able to inhibit caspase cleavage completely, but reduced the frequency of apoptotic cells only by 30%. Combination therapy significantly increased changes in MTP and the release of cyto-c, AIF and Smac/Diabolo into the cytoplasm. Furthermore, the inhibitors of apoptosis c-IAP1 and c-IAP2 were downregulated and it was shown that in combination therapy JNK activation contributed significantly to induction of apoptosis. The size of the primary tumors growing orthotopically in SCID mice treated for 4 weeks with GEM and PB was significantly reduced (2.2-2.7 fold) compared to GEM therapy alone. The Ki-67 (KNS62: p = 0.015; Ben: p = 0.093) and topoisomerase IIα (KNS62: p = 0.008; Ben: p = 0.064) proliferation indices were clearly reduced in tumors treated by combination therapy, whereas the apoptotic index was comparably low in all groups.
Conclusion: Therapy combining GEM and the HDAC inhibitor PB initiates a spectrum of apoptosis-inducing mitochondrial and further JNK-dependent events, thereby overcoming the therapeutic resistance of NSCLC tumor cells. In vivo , the combination therapy substantially reduced tumor cell proliferation, suggesting that the well tolerated PB is a useful supplemental therapeutic agent in NSCLC.