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Kirk Jensen, Athanasios Bikas, Aneeta Patel, Yevgeniya Kushchayeva, John Costello, Dennis McDaniel, Kenneth Burman and Vasyl Vasko

The HIV protease inhibitor Nelfinavir (NFV) inhibits PI3K/AKT and MAPK/ERK signaling pathways, emerging targets in thyroid cancers. We examined the effects of NFV on cancer cells that derived from follicular (FTC), papillary (PTC) and anaplastic (ATC) thyroid cancers. NFV (1–20 µM) was tested in FTC133, BCPAP and SW1736 cell lines. The effects of NFV on cell proliferation were determined in vitro using real-time microscopy and by flow cytometry. DNA damage, apoptotic cell death and expression of molecular markers of epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) were determined by Western blot and real-time PCR. Real-time imaging demonstrated that NFV (10 µM) increased the time required for the cell passage through the phases of cell cycle and induced DNA fragmentation. Growth inhibitory effects of NFV were associated with the accumulation of cells in G0/G1 phase, downregulation of cyclin D1 and cyclin-dependent kinase 4 (CDK4). NFV also induced the expression of γH2AX and p53BP1 indicating DNA damage. Treatment with NFV (20 µM) resulted in caspase-3 cleavage in all examined cells. NFV (20 µM) decreased the levels of total and p-AKT in PTEN-deficient FTC133 cells. NFV had no significant effects on total ERK and p-ERK in BRAF-positive BCPAP and SW1736 cells. NFV had no effects on the expression of EMT markers (Twist, Vimentin, E- and N-Cadherin), but inhibited the migration and decreased the abilities of thyroid cancer cells to survive in non-adherent conditions. We conclude that NFV inhibits proliferation and induces DNA damage in thyroid cancer cell lines. Our in vitro data suggest that NFV has a potential to become a new thyroid cancer therapeutic agent.

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Athanasios Bikas, Kirk Jensen, Aneeta Patel, John Costello Jr, Dennis McDaniel, Joanna Klubo-Gwiezdzinska, Olexander Larin, Victoria Hoperia, Kenneth D Burman, Lisa Boyle, Leonard Wartofsky and Vasyl Vasko

Metformin inhibits thyroid cancer cell growth. We sought to determine if variable glucose concentrations in medium alter the anti-cancer efficacy of metformin. Thyroid cancer cells (FTC133 and BCPAP) were cultured in high-glucose (20 mM) and low-glucose (5 mM) medium before treatment with metformin. Cell viability and apoptosis assays were performed. Expression of glycolytic genes was examined by real-time PCR, western blot, and immunostaining. Metformin inhibited cellular proliferation in high-glucose medium and induced cell death in low-glucose medium. In low-, but not in high-glucose medium, metformin induced endoplasmic reticulum stress, autophagy, and oncosis. At micromolar concentrations, metformin induced phosphorylation of AMP-activated protein kinase and blocked p-pS6 in low-glucose medium. Metformin increased the rate of glucose consumption from the medium and prompted medium acidification. Medium supplementation with glucose reversed metformin-inducible morphological changes. Treatment with an inhibitor of glycolysis (2-deoxy-d-glucose (2-DG)) increased thyroid cancer cell sensitivity to metformin. The combination of 2-DG with metformin led to cell death. Thyroid cancer cell lines were characterized by over-expression of glycolytic genes, and metformin decreased the protein level of pyruvate kinase muscle 2 (PKM2). PKM2 expression was detected in recurrent thyroid cancer tissue samples. In conclusion, we have demonstrated that the glucose concentration in the cellular milieu is a factor modulating metformin's anti-cancer activity. These data suggest that the combination of metformin with inhibitors of glycolysis could represent a new strategy for the treatment of thyroid cancer.