HDAC inhibitor treatment of hepatoma cells induces both TRAIL-independent apoptosis and restoration of sensitivity to TRAIL


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) displays a striking resistance to chemotherapeutic drugs or innovative tumor cell apoptosis–inducing agents such as tumor necrosis factor–related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL). Recently, we found 2 histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDAC-I), valproic acid and ITF2357, exhibiting inherent therapeutic activity against HCC. In TRAIL-sensitive cancer cells, the mechanism of HDAC-I–induced cell death has been identified to be TRAIL-dependent by inducing apoptosis in an autocrine fashion. In contrast, in HCC-derived cells, a prototype of TRAIL-resistant tumor cells, we found a HDAC-I-mediated apoptosis that works independently of TRAIL and upregulation of death receptors or their cognate ligands. Interestingly, TRAIL resistance could be overcome by a combinatorial application of HDAC-I and TRAIL, increasing the fraction of apoptotic cells two- to threefold compared with HDAC-I treatment alone, whereas any premature HDAC-I withdrawal rapidly restored TRAIL resistance. Furthermore, a tumor cell–specific downregulation of the FLICE inhibitory protein (FLIP) was observed, constituting a new mechanism of TRAIL sensitivity restoration by HDAC-I. In contrast, FLIP levels in primary human hepatocytes (PHH) from different donors were upregulated by HDAC-I. Importantly, combination HDAC-I/TRAIL treatment did not induce any cytotoxicity in nonmalignant PHH. In conclusion, HDAC-I compounds, exhibiting a favorable in vivo profile and inherent activity against HCC cells, are able to selectively overcome the resistance of HCC cells toward TRAIL. Specific upregulation of intracellular FLIP protein levels in nonmalignant hepatocytes could enhance the therapeutic window for clinical applications of TRAIL, opening up a highly specific new treatment option for advanced HCC. (HEPATOLOGY 2006;43:425–434.)