Cholesterol, but not its esters, triggers programmed cell death in human erythroleukemia K562 cells


  • Correspondence to A. Finazzi Agrò, Department of Experimental Medicine and Biochemical Sciences, University of Rome ’Tor Vergata', Via di Tor Vergata 135, I-00133 Rome, Italy

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  • Abbreviations. HOMeGlt-CoA, 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A; laurdan, 6-dodecanoyl-2-dimethylamino-naphtalene; P2, diphosphate; PCD, programmed cell death; PhMeSO2F, phenylmethylsulphonyl fluoride.


Cholesterol, its biosynthetic precursors and the cholesterol-lowering drug compactin were able to inhibit the growth of human erythroleukemia K562 cells. Compactin, farnesyldiphosphate and cholesterol were cytotoxic by the induction of apoptosis (programmed cell death, PCD). Compactin doubled the number of apoptotic cells compared to control numbers, whereas farnesyldiphosphate and cholesterol led to a fivefold increase in PCD over the control levels. At variance with cholesterol, cholesterol esters did not affect K562 cell viability and apoptotic body formation, regardless of chain length and degree of saturation. Compactin and farnesyldiphosphate reduced the membrane cholesterol content, thus increasing membrane fluidity. Conversely, cholesterol treatment reduced the membrane fluidity by increasing cholesterol content in the lipid bilayer. Unlike farnesyldiphosphate, the other cholesterol precursors and cholesterol esters were ineffective in increasing the cholesterol content and, thereby, the fluidity of cell membranes. Compactin and cholesterol precursors, apart from farnesyldiphosphate, did not affect the amount of the farnesylated proteins Ras and lamin B in the cytosolic and the membrane fractions of K562 cell extracts, whereas farnesyldiphosphate reduced the content of both proteins in both fractions. The level of lamin B in K562 cytosol and membranes was also reduced by cholesterol treatment, which did not significantly affect the amount of Ras. These findings highlight the role of cholesterol in promoting PCD.