1. Department of Oncology, the First Affiliated Hospital of Anhui Medical University, Hefei 230022, Anhui, China;
2. Department of Pharmacy, the First Affiliated Hospital of Anhui Medical University, Hefei 230022, Anhui, China;
3. Institute of Clinical Pharmacology, Anhui Medical University, Hefei 230032, Anhui, China;
4. Institute for Liver Diseases of Anhui Medical University, Hefei 230032, Anhui, China.
# These authors contributed equally to this manuscript.
The mechanisms of resistance to the targeted drug sorafenib in the treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are poorly understood. The purpose of this study was to investigate the mechanism of sorafenib resistance and to elucidate the role of melatonin in overcoming sorafenib resistance. We first observed that sorafenib induced endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress and activated autophagy in HCC, and the inhibition of ER stress and autophagy by specific inhibitors (PBA, TUDC and 3-MA) increased sorafenib-induced apoptosis, indicating that cells resist apoptosis by inducing ER stress and autophagy in the presence of sorafenib. Furthermore, specimens from patients with HCC revealed a close relationship between ER stress and autophagy, as demonstrated by the high correlation between expression of the autophagy-associated protein Beclin1 and expression of unfolded protein response (UPR) pathway proteins, especially PKR-like ER stress kinase (PERK); moreover, patients with combined expression of PERK and Beclin1 had more advanced disease (higher clinical stage) and a shorter overall survival time. ER stress inhibitors significantly blocked sorafenib-induced autophagy, selective knockdown of PERK and activating transcription factor 4 (ATF4) expression reduced sorafenib-induced autophagy activity compared with knockdown of the other two UPR pathways, and silencing ATF4 inhibited the expression of Beclin1. These results suggest that autophagy is downstream of ER stress and that the PERK-ATF4-Beclin1 pathway plays a role in ER stress-related autophagy. Interestingly, a low concentration of melatonin increased the sensitivity of HCC to sorafenib by inhibiting autophagy through the PERK-ATF4-Beclin1 pathway. Taken together, our findings suggest that cotreatment with sorafenib and melatonin is a potential therapy for HCC. Furthermore, ER stress-related autophagy plays key roles in apoptosis resistance. Therefore, targeting the PERK-ATF4-Beclin1 pathway may prove instrumental in HCC therapy.
Keywords: Hepatocellular carcinoma, Sorafenib, Melatonin, Endoplasmic reticulum stress, Autophagy, Apoptosis resistance