Despite advances toward understanding the prevention and treatment of many cancers, patients who suffer from oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) confront a survival rate that has remained unimproved for more than two decades indicating our ability to treat them pharmacologically has reached a plateau. In an ongoing effort to improve the clinical outlook for this disease, we previously reported that an essential component of the mechanism by which the proteasome inhibitor bortezomib (PS-341, Velcade) induced apoptosis in OSCC required the activation of a terminal unfolded protein response (UPR). Predicated on these studies, we hypothesized that high throughput screening (HTS) of large diverse chemical libraries might identify more potent or selective small molecule activators of the apoptotic arm of the UPR to control or kill OSCC. We have developed complementary cell-based assays using stably transfected CHO-K1 cell lines that individually assess the PERK/eIF2α/CHOP (apoptotic) or the IRE1/XBP1 (adaptive) UPR sub-pathways. A ~66K compound collection was screened at the University of Michigan Center for Chemical Genomics that included a unique library of pre-fractionated natural product extracts. The mycotoxin methoxycitrinin was isolated from a natural extract and found to selectively activate the CHOP-luciferase reporter at 80μM. A series of citrinin derivatives were isolated from these extracts, including a unique congener that has not been previously described. In an effort to identify more potent compounds we examined the ability of citrinin and the structurally related mycotoxins ochratoxin A and patulin to activate the UPR. Strikingly, we found that patulin at 2.5 – 10μM induced a terminal UPR in a panel of OSCC cells that was characterized by an increase in CHOP, GADD34 and ATF3 gene expression and XBP1 splicing. A luminescent caspase assay and the induction of several BH3-only genes indicated that patulin could induce apoptosis in OSCC cells. These data support the use of this complementary HTS strategy to identify novel modulators of UPR signaling and tumor cell death.
Keywords: unfolded protein response, endoplasmic reticulum stress, cell-based assay, luciferase reporter, natural products