Cytotoxic sigma-2 ligands trigger cancer cell death via cholesterol-induced-ER-stress

Rony Takchi, Bethany C. Prudner, Qingqing Gong, Takaomi Hagi, Kenneth F. Newcomer, Linda X. Jin, Suwanna Vangveravong, Brian A. Van Tine, William G. Hawkins, Dirk Spitzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sigma-2-ligands (S2L) are characterized by high binding affinities to their cognate sigma-2 receptor, overexpressed in rapidly proliferating tumor cells. As such, S2L were developed as imaging probes (ISO1) or as cancer therapeutics, alone (SV119 [C6], SW43 [C10]) and as delivery vehicles for cytotoxic drug cargoes (C6-Erastin, C10-SMAC). However, the exact mechanism of S2L-induced cytotoxicity remains to be fully elucidated. A series of high-affinity S2L were evaluated regarding their cytotoxicity profiles across cancer cell lines. While C6 and C10 displayed distinct cytotoxicities, C0 and ISO1 were essentially non-toxic. Confocal microscopy and lipidomics analysis in cellular and mouse models revealed that C10 induced increases in intralysosomal free cholesterol and in cholesterol esters, suggestive of unaltered intracellular cholesterol trafficking. Cytotoxicity was caused by cholesterol excess, a phenomenon that contrasts the effects of NPC1 inhibition. RNA-sequencing revealed gene clusters involved in cholesterol homeostasis and ER stress response exclusively by cytotoxic S2L. ER stress markers were confirmed by qPCR and their targeted modulation inhibited or enhanced cytotoxicity of C10 in a predicted manner. Moreover, C10 increased sterol regulatory element-binding protein 2 (SREBP2) and low-density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR), both found to be pro-survival factors activated by ER stress. Furthermore, inhibition of downstream processes of the adaptive response to S2L with simvastatin resulted in synergistic treatment outcomes in combination with C10. Of note, the S2L conjugates retained the ER stress response of the parental ligands, indicative of cholesterol homeostasis being involved in the overall cytotoxicity of the drug conjugates. Based on these findings, we conclude that S2L-mediated cell death is due to free cholesterol accumulation that leads to ER stress. Consequently, the cytotoxic profiles of S2L drug conjugates are proposed to be enhanced via concurrent ER stress inducers or simvastatin, strategies that could be instrumental on the path toward tumor eradication.

Original languageEnglish
Article number309
JournalCell Death and Disease
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2024


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