Nickel carcinogenesis: Epigenetics and hypoxia signaling

Max Costa, Todd L. Davidson, Haobin Chen, Qingdong Ke, Ping Zhang, Yan Yan, Chuanshu Huang, Thomas Kluz

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188 Scopus citations


Both water soluble and insoluble nickel compounds have been implicated in the etiology of human lung and nasal cancers. Water insoluble nickel compounds have been shown to enter cells by phagocytosis and are contained in cytoplasmic vacuoles, which are acidified thus accelerating the dissolution of soluble nickel from the particles. Using Newport Green, a dye that fluoresces when ionic nickel is bound, we have shown that following exposure (48-72 h) of human lung (A549) cells to NiS particles, most of the nickel is contained in the nucleus, while cells exposed to soluble NiCl2 exhibit most of the ions localized in the cytoplasm. This effect is consistent with previously published reports showing that short-term exposure of cells to crystalline nickel particles (1-3 days) is able to epigenetically silence target genes placed near heterochromatin, while similar short-term exposure to soluble nickel compounds are not able to induce silencing of genes placed near heterochromatin. However, a 3 week exposure of cells to soluble NiCl2 is also able to induce gene silencing. A similar effect was found in yeast cells where nickel was able to silence the URA-3 gene placed near (1.3 kb) a telomere silencing element, but not when the gene was placed farther away from the silencing element (2.0 kb). In addition to epigenetic effects, nickel compounds activate hypoxia signaling pathways. The mechanism of this effect involves the ability of either soluble or insoluble nickel compounds to block iron uptake leading to cellular iron depletion, directly affect iron containing enzymes, or both. This results in the inhibition of a variety of iron-dependent enzymes, such as aconitase and the HIF proline hydroxylases (PHD1-3). The inhibition of the HIF proline hydroxylases stabilizes the HIF protein and activates hypoxic signaling. Additional studies have shown that nickel and hypoxia decrease histone acetylation and increase the methylation of H3 lysine 9. These events are involved in gene silencing and hypoxia can also cause these effects in human cells. It is hypothesised that the state of hypoxia either by low oxygen tension or as a result of agents that signal hypoxia under normal oxygen tension (iron chelation, nickel and cobalt) results in low levels of acetyl CoA, which is a substrate for histone and other protein acetylation. This effect may in part be responsible for the gene silencing following nickel exposure and during hypoxia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-88
Number of pages10
JournalMutation Research - Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Dec 30 2005


  • Carcinogenesis
  • Hypoxia
  • Nickel


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