• glioma;
  • glutamate;
  • glutathione;
  • reactive oxygen species;
  • S-4-carboxy-phenylglycine;
  • system xc


Nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB) is a pleiotropic transcription factor that generally enhances cellular resistance to apoptotic cell death. It has been shown to be constitutively active in some cancers and is being pursued as potential anticancer target. Sulfasalazine which is used clinically to treat Crohn’s disease has emerged as a potential inhibitor of NF-κB and has shown promising results in two pre-clinical studies to target primary brain tumors, gliomas. Once digested, sulfasalazine is cleaved into sulfapyridine and 5-aminosalicylic acid (5-ASA; mesalamine) by colonic bacteria, and the latter, too, is reported to suppress NF-κB activity. We now show that glioma cells obtained from patient biopsies or glioma cell lines do not show significant constitutive NF-κB activation, unless exposed to inflammatory cytokines. This does not change when gliomas are implanted into the cerebrum of severe combined immundeficient mice. Nevertheless, sulfasalazine but not its cleaved form 5-ASA caused a dose-dependent inhibition of glioma growth. This effect was entirely attributable to the inhibition of cystine uptake via the system xc cystine–glutamate transporter. It could be mimicked by S-4-carboxy-phenylglycine (S-4-CPG) a more specific system xc inhibitor, and lentiviral expression of a constitutively active form of IκB kinase b was unable to overcome the growth retarding effects of sulfasalazine or S-4-CPG. Both drugs inhibited cystine uptake causing a chronic depletion of intracellular GSH and consequently compromised cellular redox defense which stymied tumor growth. This data suggests that system xc is a promising therapeutic target in gliomas and possibly other cancers and that it can be pharmacologically inhibited by Sulfasalazine, an FDA-approved drug.