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1.  Identification of a Novel Topoisomerase Inhibitor Effective in Cells Overexpressing Drug Efflux Transporters 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(10):e7238.
Background
Natural product structures have high chemical diversity and are attractive as lead structures for discovery of new drugs. One of the disease areas where natural products are most frequently used as therapeutics is oncology.
Method and Findings
A library of natural products (NCI Natural Product set) was screened for compounds that induce apoptosis of HCT116 colon carcinoma cells using an assay that measures an endogenous caspase-cleavage product. One of the apoptosis-inducing compounds identified in the screen was thaspine (taspine), an alkaloid from the South American tree Croton lechleri. The cortex of this tree is used for medicinal purposes by tribes in the Amazonas basin. Thaspine was found to induce conformational activation of the pro-apoptotic proteins Bak and Bax, mitochondrial cytochrome c release and mitochondrial membrane permeabilization in HCT116 cells. Analysis of the gene expression signature of thaspine-treated cells suggested that thaspine is a topoisomerase inhibitor. Inhibition of both topoisomerase I and II was observed using in vitro assays, and thaspine was found to have a reduced cytotoxic effect on a cell line with a mutated topoisomerase II enzyme. Interestingly, in contrast to the topoisomerase II inhibitors doxorubicin, etoposide and mitoxantrone, thaspine was cytotoxic to cell lines overexpressing the PgP or MRP drug efflux transporters. We finally show that thaspine induces wide-spread apoptosis in colon carcinoma multicellular spheroids and that apoptosis is induced in two xenograft mouse models in vivo.
Conclusions
The alkaloid thaspine from the cortex of Croton lechleri is a dual topoisomerase inhibitor effective in cells overexpressing drug efflux transporters and induces wide-spread apoptosis in multicellular spheroids.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007238
PMCID: PMC2749935  PMID: 19798419
2.  Charting calcium-regulated apoptosis pathways using chemical biology: role of calmodulin kinase II 
Background
Intracellular free calcium ([Ca2+]i) is a key element in apoptotic signaling and a number of calcium-dependent apoptosis pathways have been described. We here used a chemical biology strategy to elucidate the relative importance of such different pathways.
Results
A set of 40 agents ("bioprobes") that induce apoptosis was first identified by screening of a chemical library. Using p53, AP-1, NFAT and NF-κB reporter cell lines, these bioprobes were verified to induce different patterns of signaling. Experiments using the calcium chelator BAPTA-AM showed that Ca2+ was involved in induction of apoptosis by the majority of the bioprobes and that Ca2+ was in general required several hours into the apoptosis process. Further studies showed that the calmodulin pathway was an important mediator of the apoptotic response. Inhibition of calmodulin kinase II (CaMKII) resulted in more effective inhibition of apoptosis compared to inhibition of calpain, calcineurin/PP2B or DAP kinase. We used one of the bioprobes, the plant alkaloid helenalin, to study the role of CaMKII in apoptosis. Helenalin induced CaMKII, ASK1 and Jun-N-terminal kinase (JNK) activity, and inhibition of these kinases inhibited apoptosis.
Conclusion
Our study shows that calcium signaling is generally not an early event during the apoptosis process and suggests that a CaMKII/ASK1 signaling mechanism is important for sustained JNK activation and apoptosis by some types of stimuli.
doi:10.1186/1472-6769-8-2
PMCID: PMC2518916  PMID: 18673549
3.  Induction of mitochondrial dysfunction as a strategy for targeting tumour cells in metabolically compromised microenvironments 
Nature Communications  2014;5:3295.
Abnormal vascularization of solid tumours results in the development of microenvironments deprived of oxygen and nutrients that harbour slowly growing and metabolically stressed cells. Such cells display enhanced resistance to standard chemotherapeutic agents and repopulate tumours after therapy. Here we identify the small molecule VLX600 as a drug that is preferentially active against quiescent cells in colon cancer 3-D microtissues. The anticancer activity is associated with reduced mitochondrial respiration, leading to bioenergetic catastrophe and tumour cell death. VLX600 shows enhanced cytotoxic activity under conditions of nutrient starvation. Importantly, VLX600 displays tumour growth inhibition in vivo. Our findings suggest that tumour cells in metabolically compromised microenvironments have a limited ability to respond to decreased mitochondrial function, and suggest a strategy for targeting the quiescent populations of tumour cells for improved cancer treatment.
Quiescent sub-populations of cells in tumours are resistant to traditional chemotherapeutics and are responsible for tumour recurrence. Here, Zhang et al. identify a compound that kills quiescent tumour cells in solid tumour tissue by inducing mitochondrial dysfunction.
doi:10.1038/ncomms4295
PMCID: PMC3929804  PMID: 24548894
4.  Combining [11C]-AnxA5 PET Imaging with Serum Biomarkers for Improved Detection in Live Mice of Modest Cell Death in Human Solid Tumor Xenografts 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e42151.
Background
In vivo imaging using Annexin A5-based radioligands is a powerful technique for visualizing massive cell death, but has been less successful in monitoring the modest cell death typically seen in solid tumors after chemotherapy. Here we combined dynamic positron emission tomography (PET) imaging using Annexin A5 with a serum-based apoptosis marker, for improved sensitivity and specificity in assessment of chemotherapy-induced cell death in a solid tumor model.
Methodology/Principal Findings
Modest cell death was induced by doxorubicin in a mouse xenograft model with human FaDu head and neck cancer cells. PET imaging was based on 11C-labeled Sel-tagged Annexin A5 ([11C]-AnxA5-ST) and a size-matched control. 2-deoxy-2-[18F]fluoro-D-glucose ([18F]-FDG) was utilized as a tracer of tissue metabolism. Serum biomarkers for cell death were ccK18 and K18 (M30 Apoptosense® and M65). Apoptosis in tissue sections was verified ex vivo for validation. Both PET imaging using [11C]-AnxA5-ST and serum ccK18/K18 levels revealed treatment-induced cell death, with ccK18 displaying the highest detection sensitivity. [18F]-FDG uptake was not affected by this treatment in this tumor model. [11C]-AnxA5-ST gave robust imaging readouts at one hour and its short half-life made it possible to perform paired scans in the same animal in one imaging session.
Conclusions/Significance
The combined use of dynamic PET with [11C]-AnxA5-ST, showing specific increases in tumor binding potential upon therapy, with ccK18/K18 serum measurements, as highly sensitive markers for cell death, enabled effective assessment of modest therapy-induced cell death in this mouse xenograft model of solid human tumors.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042151
PMCID: PMC3411630  PMID: 22870292

Results 1-4 (4)