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Evaluation of bioactive sphingolipids in 4-HPR-resistant leukemia cells

Aintzane Apraiz1, Jolanta K Idkowiak-Baldys2, María Dolores Boyano1, Gorka Pérez-Yarza1, Yusuf A Hannun2 and Aintzane Asumendi1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Cell Biology and Histology, School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of the Basque Country, Barrio Sarriena s/n, 48940 Leioa (Bizkaia), Spain

2 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Medical University of South Carolina, 173 Ashley Avenue, 250509 Charleston, SC, USA

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BMC Cancer 2011, 11:477  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-477

Published: 7 November 2011



N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)retinamide (4-HPR, fenretinide) is a synthetic retinoid with potent pro-apoptotic activity against several types of cancer, but little is known regarding mechanisms leading to chemoresistance. Ceramide and, more recently, other sphingolipid species (e.g., dihydroceramide and dihydrosphingosine) have been implicated in 4-HPR-mediated tumor cell death. Because sphingolipid metabolism has been reported to be altered in drug-resistant tumor cells, we studied the implication of sphingolipids in acquired resistance to 4-HPR based on an acute lymphoblastic leukemia model.


CCRF-CEM cell lines resistant to 4-HPR were obtained by gradual selection. Endogenous sphingolipid profiles and in situ enzymatic activities were determined by LC/MS, and resistance to 4-HPR or to alternative treatments was measured using the XTT viability assay and annexin V-FITC/propidium iodide labeling.


No major crossresistance was observed against other antitumoral compounds (i.e. paclitaxel, cisplatin, doxorubicin hydrochloride) or agents (i.e. ultra violet C, hydrogen peroxide) also described as sphingolipid modulators. CCRF-CEM cell lines resistant to 4-HPR exhibited a distinctive endogenous sphingolipid profile that correlated with inhibition of dihydroceramide desaturase. Cells maintained acquired resistance to 4-HPR after the removal of 4-HPR though the sphingolipid profile returned to control levels. On the other hand, combined treatment with sphingosine kinase inhibitors (unnatural (dihydro)sphingosines ((dh)Sph)) and glucosylceramide synthase inhibitor (PPMP) in the presence or absence of 4-HPR increased cellular (dh)Sph (but not ceramide) levels and were highly toxic for both parental and resistant cells.


In the leukemia model, acquired resistance to 4-HPR is selective and persists in the absence of sphingolipid profile alteration. Therapeutically, the data demonstrate that alternative sphingolipid-modulating antitumoral strategies are suitable for both 4-HPR-resistant and sensitive leukemia cells. Thus, whereas sphingolipids may not be critical for maintaining resistance to 4-HPR, manipulation of cytotoxic sphingolipids should be considered a viable approach for overcoming resistance.