Resistance to therapy is the major obstacle to more effective cancer treatment. Heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) is often highly up-regulated in tumor tissues, and its expression is further increased in response to therapies. It has been suggested that inhibition of HO-1 expression is a potential therapeutic approach to sensitize tumors to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that the anti-tumor effects of metformin are mediated by suppression of HO-1 expression in cancer cells. Our results indicate that metformin strongly suppresses HO-1 mRNA and protein expression in human hepatic carcinoma HepG2, cervical cancer HeLa, and non-small-cell lung cancer A549 cells. Metformin also markedly reduced Nrf2 mRNA and protein levels in whole cell lysates and suppressed tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ)-induced Nrf2 protein stability and antioxidant response element (ARE)-luciferase activity in HepG2 cells. We also found that metformin regulation of Nrf2 expression is mediated by a Keap1-independent mechanism and that metformin significantly attenuated Raf-ERK signaling to suppress Nrf2 expression in cancer cells. Inhibition of Raf-ERK signaling by PD98059 decreased Nrf2 mRNA expression in HepG2 cells, confirming that the inhibition of Nrf2 expression is mediated by an attenuation of Raf-ERK signaling in cancer cells. The inactivation of AMPK by siRNA, DN-AMPK or the pharmacological AMPK inhibitor compound C, revealed that metformin reduced HO-1 expression in an AMPK-independent manner. These results highlight the Raf-ERK-Nrf2 axis as a new molecular target in anticancer therapy in response to metformin treatment. © 2013 Elsevier Inc.
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