Anaplastic thyroid carcinoma is the most aggressive type of thyroid malignancies. Previously, we demonstrated that tumorigenicity of anaplastic thyroid carcinoma cell line ARO was significantly reduced following interleukin (IL)-12 gene transfer. We suspected that tumor target structure in ARO/IL-12 cells might be changed and such a change may make them more susceptible to be killed through mechanisms apart from natural killer-dependent pathway. To identify genes involved, we examined gene expression profile of ARO and ARO/IL-12 by microarray analysis of 3757 genes. The most highly expressed gene was cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2), which was expressed eightfold higher in ARO/IL-12 cells than ARO cells. CB2 agonist JWH133 and mixed CB1/CB2 agonist WIN-55,212–2 could induce significantly higher rate of apoptosis in ARO/IL-12 than ARO cells. Similar results were obtained when ARO cells were transfected with CB2 transgene (ARO/CB2). A considerable regression of thyroid tumors generated by inoculation of ARO/CB2 cells was observed in nude mice following local administration of JWH133. We also demonstrated significant increase in the induction of apoptosis in ARO/IL12 and ARO/CB2 cells following incubation with 15 nM paclitaxel, indicating that tumor cells were sensitized to chemotherapy. These data suggest that CB2 overexpression may contribute to the regression of human anaplastic thyroid tumor in nude mice following IL-12 gene transfer. Given that cannabinoids have shown antitumor effects in many types of cancer models, CB2 may be a viable therapeutic target for the treatment of anaplastic thyroid carcinoma.
Thyroid carcinoma is the most common malignancy of the endocrine system, which accounts for the majority of deaths from endocrine cancers.1, 2 Three types of thyroid carcinomas are derived from thyroid follicular cells: papillary, follicular and anaplastic carcinomas. Differentiated (papillary and follicular) carcinomas have relatively good prognosis, whereas anaplastic (undifferentiated) carcinoma is highly aggressive with a mean survival time of less than 8 months.3 Although most differentiated thyroid carcinomas treated by surgery and 131I therapy can be cured, 10–20% of patients die from recurrence or progression of advanced differentiated tumors due to lack of effective treatments. Anaplastic carcinoma carries a far graver prognosis. The primary tumor may be debulked by surgery, but most are inoperable when first seen because they are too large or too fixed and may have spread beyond the thyroid bed. Anaplastic tumor cells are not responsive to radioiodine and most modalities of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Thus, development of novel therapeutic approaches to anaplastic carcinoma becomes necessary and gene therapy may be a viable alternative approach to thyroid carcinoma refractory to conventional treatment.4, 5
Cytokine gene therapy has been extensively used for the treatment of cancer in experimental animal models and clinical trials.6, 7 Among many cytokine-based anticancer therapies, interleukin-12 (IL-12) provides one of the most significant antitumor activities in many experimental animal models.8 We have previously demonstrated that IL-12 is effective against anaplastic thyroid carcinoma in a mouse model.9 The mechanisms leading to tumor regression were mainly dependent on natural killer (NK) cells. However, NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity against IL-12-transfected anaplastic thyroid carcinoma cells ARO (ARO/IL-12) could not be completely neutralized by anti-NK cell antibody, suggesting that other mechanisms of IL-12-mediated antitumor activity may be involved or tumor target structure in ARO/IL-12 cells might be changed as a result of IL-12 expression and such a change may make them more susceptible to be killed.
To further explore the mechanisms of IL-12-mediated antitumor activity, in the present study, we investigated the gene expression profile of ARO and ARO/IL-12 cells by microarray analysis of more than 3000 genes, and found that cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2) was expressed eightfold higher in ARO/IL-12 cells as compared to ARO cells. We further investigated the effect of CB2 expression in ARO cells on the agonist-induced apoptosis and sensitivity of ARO cells to chemotherapy drug paclitaxel.
Materials and methods
Female BALB/c (nu/nu) nude mice 6 to 8 weeks of age were used as model hosts for anaplastic thyroid tumors. To establish subcutaneous thyroid tumor, mice were injected subcutaneously with 2 × 106 ARO cells. Palpable tumors developed within 10–14 days. Tumor volume was calculated by the formula: width2 × length × 0.5.
Cell line and cell culture
ARO, a human anaplastic thyroid carcinoma cell line, and IL-12- or CB2-transfected ARO were propagated in Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium containing 10% fetal bovine serum, 2 mM L-glutamine, 100 U ml−1 penicillin and 100 μg ml−1 streptomycin at 37 °C in humidified atmosphere containing 5% CO2.
RNA extraction, RT-PCR, northern hybridization and microarray analysis
Total RNA was extracted by quanidinium thiocyanate–phenol–chloroform method. The integrity of RNA was verified by denaturing gel electrophoresis, and northern hybridization was carried out using 1.2 kb full-length CB2 cDNA probe as previously described.10 Clontech's Altas human cDNA expression array (Atlas Glass Human 3.8 II with 3757 genes) was used to compare gene expression profile between ARO and ARO/IL-12 cell lines according to the manufacturer's procedure. Expression of IL-12 receptor B1 (IL-12RB1) and B2 (IL-12RB2) subunits were determined by reverse transcription (RT)-PCR analysis. Primer sequences and PCR amplification were as follows: IL-12RB1 sense: 5′-TCTTCCTCTTCCTGCTGTCC-3′, antisense: 5′-CCTCATACTGCCAGGAGCACTC-3′, 94 °C for 1 min, 48 °C for 1 min, 72 °C for 1 min, 35 cycles; IL-12RB2 sense: 5′-CATGGAACAGCATTCCAGTCCA-3′, antisense: 5′-AATGCTTGGTGCCACAAACGCC-3′, 94 °C for 1 min, 48 °C for 1 min, 72 °C for 1 min, 35 cycles.
Quantitative real-time RT-PCR analysis
Total RNAs from ARO, ARO/IL-12 and ARO stimulated with 10 ng ml−1 IL-12 for 16 h were isolated as described above. Total RNA (2 μg each) was reverse-transcribed using Promega reverse transcription system (Promega, Madison, WI). LightCycler DNA Master SYBR Green 1kit was used for quantitative real-time PCR analysis according to the manufacturer's protocols (Roche, Mannheim, Germany). The cDNA mix was diluted 10-fold and 2 μl of the dilution was used for real-time PCR analysis. PCR primers for 290 bp CB2 cDNA fragment were as follows: 5′-TCAGTGGAATCTGAAGGGCC-3′ (sense) and 5′-ATGCAAAGACCACACTGGCCA-3′ (antisense). The mRNA level of housekeeping gene glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase was used as an internal control and a 300-bp PCR product was amplified using the following two primers: 5′-ACAGTCAGCCGCATCTTCTT-3′ (sense) and 5′-TTGATTTTGGAGGGATCTCG-3′ (antisense). The PCR conditions were as follows: 95 °C for 30 s followed by 35 cycles of amplification (95 °C for 5 s, 48 °C for 5 s and 72 °C for 10 s). The resulting concentration of CB2 PCR products was normalized by comparison with glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase and was used to determine the CB2 mRNA level in both ARO, ARO/CB2 or ARO/IL-12 cell lines.
Both ARO and ARO/IL-12 cells grown in coverslips were fixed in 3.7% (vol/vol) formaldehyde. CB2 was visualized by indirect immunofluorescence using polyclonal rabbit anti-CB2 antibody (Cayman, MI) and TRITC-conjugated goat anti-rabbit secondary antibody (Pierce, Rockford, IL). Confocal microscopy images were quantified using the Image Analyzing program provided by Carl Zeiss, Germany.
Cloning and expression of CB2 in ARO cells
The full-length CB2 cDNA was amplified by RT-PCR from ARO/IL-12 cells using the following two primers: 5′-TCAGTGGAATCTGAAGGGCC-3′ (sense) and 5′-TTAAATTGGGAAGAGGCCTC-3′ (antisense). The resulting 1.1-kb cDNA fragment was cloned into pcDNA 3.1 expression vector under the control of cytomegalovirus promoter (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA). ARO cells were transfected with either CB2/CMVpDNA or vector alone as previously described.9 Cells were selected in the presence of 400 μg ml−1 G418 for 3 weeks (Sigma, St Louis, MO).
Cell proliferation and viability assay
ARO, ARO/IL-12 and ARO/CB2 cells were seeded onto 96-well plate with a concentration of 1 × 104 cells per well in triplicate. Cell proliferation was determined after 24 h by bromodeoxyuridine incorporation assay using Promega' BrdU cell proliferation assay kit (Promega, Madison, WI). For cell viability assay, 1 × 104 cells per well in triplicate were treated with different concentrations of JWH133, WIN-55,212-2 or paclitaxel for 24 h at 37 °C. Cell viability was determined using Promega's CellTiter-Glo Luminescent cell viability assay kit.
Flow cytometry analysis for apoptosis
Cells (1 × 105) were double stained with fluorescein isothiocyanate-conjugated annexin V and propidium iodide for 15 min at room temperature using Molecular Probes's apoptosis detection kit (Invitrogen, CA), and then analyzed on a FACScan flow cytometer (BD Biosciences, San Jose, CA). Annexin V and propidium iodide emissions were detected in the FL-1 and FL-2 channels, respectively.11
Antitumoral action of cannabinoid in vivo
Tumors were induced in nude mice by subcutaneous flank injection of 2 × 106 ARO or ARO/CB2 cells. When tumors reached an average size of 250 mm3, animals were assigned randomly to various groups and received daily intratumoral injection of vehicle or 50 μg ml−1 of CB2 ligand JWH133 in 50 μl of saline supplemented with 5 mg ml−1 bovine serum albumin for 14 days as previously described.12
Tumor burden and apoptosis among different treatment groups were analyzed by the Student's t-test. Differences were considered statistically significant when the P-value was <0.05.
CB2 overexpression in ARO/IL-12 cells
We examined gene expression profile of ARO and ARO/IL-12 by microarray analysis of 3757 genes using Atlas Glass Human 3.8 II microarray. The most highly expressed gene was CB2, which was expressed eightfold higher in ARO/IL-12 cells than in ARO cells. To validate the microarray data, we performed northern blot, quantitative PCR and confocal microscopy analysis of CB2 expression in both ARO and ARO/IL-12 cells. As shown in Figure 1, CB2 was overexpressed in ARO/IL-12 cells. Furthermore, CB2 expression could be induced in ARO cells by IL-12 (threefold increase as compared to control), and IL-12 receptor B1 and B2 subunits were expressed in both ARO and ARO/IL-12 cells (Figure 1). Interestingly, IL-12 receptor B2 was expressed higher in ARO/IL-12 cells than ARO cells (Figure 1D). IL-12 receptor B2 gene has been reported to function as a tumor suppressor in human B-cell malignancies.13
Effect of CB2 overexpression on the induction of apoptosis by CB2 agonists
To study the effect of CB2 expression on the induction of apoptosis by CB2 agonist in ARO cells, and eliminate the effect of IL-12 expression on apoptosis in ARO/IL-12 cells, we cloned the entire coding region of CB2 cDNA into pcDNA 3.1 expression vector and transfected into ARO cells (ARO/CB2). The transfected cells were selected and stable clones were pooled for apoptosis study. Quantitative real-time RT-PCR analysis showed that the level of CB2 expression in ARO/CB2 cells was 6.7±0.42-fold higher than that in ARO cells transfected with vector alone (data not shown). Two CB2 agonists JWH133 and WIN-55,212-2 were used for induction of apoptosis in ARO, ARO/vector, ARO/CB2 and ARO/IL-12 cells. JWH133 was a potent CB2-selective agonist with approximately 200-fold selective over CB1 receptors. WIN-55,212–2 acted on both CB1 and CB2 with approximately 20-fold selective over CB1 receptors. As shown in Figure 2, both JWH133 and WIN-55,212–2 treatments resulted in a dose-dependent increase of apoptosis in ARO/CB2 and ARO/IL-12 cells as compared to ARO or ARO/vector cells (P<0.01). There was also a twofold increase in spontaneous apoptosis in ARO/IL-12 cells.
Regression of ARO/CB2 tumor following JWH133 treatment
We next investigated whether JW133 can reduce tumor growth in nude mice. ARO, ARO/vector and ARO/CB2 tumors received daily intratumoral injection of 50 μg ml−1 of JWH133 or vehicle for 3 weeks. Tumor load was measured 60 days after inoculation. As shown in Figure 3, there was no significant difference in tumor load among mice bearing ARO, ARO/vector or ARO/CB2 tumors treated with vehicle only or ARO tumors treated with JWH133. However, the ARO/CB2 tumor load was significantly reduced: 2.34±0.57 vs 4.47±0.94 g in the mice bearing ARO tumors. The significant reduction in tumor load in ARO/CB2 group was statistically significant (P<0.01). The effect of CB2 expression on ARO cell proliferation was also examined. We did not find any significant difference between ARO and ARO/CB2 cells (data not shown).
Enhancement of paclitaxel-induced apoptosis in ARO/IL-12 and ARO/CB2 cells
Paclitaxel is an anticancer agent and inhibits cell cycle progression by accumulating cells in M phase. We were interested in knowing whether CB2 or IL-12 expression can enhance the effect of paclitaxel. Therefore, the apoptosis of ARO, ARO/vector, ARO/CB2 and ARO/IL-12 cells was analyzed before and after paclitaxel treatment by annexin V and PI staining. As shown in Figure 4, higher level of apoptosis (twofold) was found in ARO/CB2 and ARO/IL-12 cells after 15 nM paclitaxel treatment as compared to ARO cells. These results indicated that induction of CB2 or IL-12 expression could enhance cytotoxicity of paclitaxel.
We have demonstrated for the first time that CB2 expression is induced following IL-12 expression in ARO cell line. The overexpression of CB2 renders the cells more susceptible to CB2 agonist-mediated apoptosis and regression of the tumor. Furthermore, we have shown significant increase in apoptosis in ARO/IL-12 and ARO/CB2 cells following paclitaxel treatment.
Tumor formation and growth depend mainly on the inability of the organism to elicit a potent immune response, and on the formation of new blood vessels that enable tumor nutrition. IL-12 gene therapy can target both processes and result in tumor regression. Indeed, we have found significant thyroid tumor regression following IL-12 gene transfer in nude mice.9 The IL-12-mediated CB2 induction may also contribute to thyroid tumor regression. Since there is no significant reduction of tumor growth in nude mice inoculated with ARO/CB2 cells as compared to ARO cells, the endogenous CB2 agonists may not play a significant role in the tumor regression, even though endogenous mixed CB1/CB2 agonist anandamide was reported to inhibit the proliferation of human breast cancer cell lines MCF-7 and EFM-19 in vitro. The most plausible explanation may be the change of tumor target structure in ARO cells following IL-12 or CB2 expression, which makes it more easily to be killed by IL-12 or other agent-mediated cytotoxicity. This hypothesis is supported by the increased sensitivity to paclitaxel-induced apoptosis in ARO/CB2 and ARO/IL-12 cells. Cannabinoids exert pro-apoptotic actions in tumor cells via the cannabinoid receptor. It has been reported that CB2 receptor can induce apoptosis in human leukemia cells via p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) activation and a ceramide-dependent stimulation of the mitochondrial intrinsic pathway.14, 15 The apoptosis induced by paclitaxel also depends on the activation of MAPK pathway. Taxol treatment strongly activated ERK and p38 MAPKs in MCF7 breast cancer cells.16 Therefore, the increase in sensitivity to paclitaxel-induced apoptosis in ARO/CB2 and ARO/IL-12 cells is likely due to increased CB2 expression and activation of MAPK pathway.
Numerous reports have indicated that cannabinoids, the active components of Cannabis sativa (marijuana) and their derivatives, can inhibit cancer cell growth, angiogenesis, invasion and metastasis by modulating key cell-signalling pathways, such as MAPKs and phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase pathways,17, 18, 19, 20 both of which have been involved in thyroid carcinoma.21 For example, multiple genetic defects were found in the RET/PTC(TRK)–RAS–BRAF–MEK–MAPK kinase pathway. The most frequent one was BRAF mutation: 44% found in papillary thyroid carcinoma and 24% in anaplastic thyroid carcinoma.22 BRAF mutation would lead to increased phosphorylated pERK protein expression. Recent study has shown that Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the major psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, can downregulate genes involved in this pathway, resulting in decreased phosphorylated pERK protein expression.23 Although the evidence for its medical use is compelling, its legal or licensed use in medicine is still a controversial issue in most countries due to widespread illegal use of cannabis as a recreational drug. There are two cannabinoid-specific receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are predominantly expressed in the brain, whereas CB2 receptors are primarily found in the immune system. To overcome drug addiction and abuse, several groups have developed new synthetic and non-habit-forming cannabinoid receptor agonists and have demonstrated significant antitumor effect in many types of cancer.12, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 More recently, Herrera et al.30 have shown that the apoptosis induced by CB2 activation is through ceramide-dependent activation of the mitochondrial intrinsic pathway.14 Interestingly, overexpression of CB1 and CB2 has been reported to correlate with improved prognosis of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma.
The discovery of IL-12-induced CB2 overexpression in thyroid cancer cells may offer a new target for anaplastic thyroid cancer treatment: activation of CB2 would trigger apoptosis of thyroid cancer cells and tumor regression. Because CB2 agonists lack psychotropic effects, they may serve as novel anticancer agents to target and kill thyroid cancer cells.
This research project was supported by a grant from King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (ARP-24-11). We thank Dr Raafat M El-Sayed from Animal Facility for his excellent support.
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Clinical & Experimental Metastasis (2010)