Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Starvation-induced activation of ATM/Chk2/p53 signaling sensitizes cancer cells to cisplatin

Yandong Shi1*, Emanuela Felley-Bosco1*, Thomas M Marti1, Katrin Orlowski2, Martin Pruschy2 and Rolf A Stahel1

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Molecular Oncology, Zürich, Switzerland

2 Department of Radiation Oncology, University Hospital Zürich, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

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BMC Cancer 2012, 12:571  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-12-571

Published: 4 December 2012



Optimizing the safety and efficacy of standard chemotherapeutic agents such as cisplatin (CDDP) is of clinical relevance. Serum starvation in vitro and short-term food starvation in vivo both stress cells by the sudden depletion of paracrine growth stimulation.


The effects of serum starvation on CDDP toxicity were investigated in normal and cancer cells by assessing proliferation, cell cycle distribution and activation of DNA-damage response and of AMPK, and were compared to effects observed in cells grown in serum-containing medium. The effects of short-term food starvation on CDDP chemotherapy were assessed in xenografts-bearing mice and were compared to effects on tumor growth and/or regression determined in mice with no diet alteration.


We observed that serum starvation in vitro sensitizes cancer cells to CDDP while protecting normal cells. In detail, in normal cells, serum starvation resulted in a complete arrest of cellular proliferation, i.e. depletion of BrdU-incorporation during S-phase and accumulation of the cells in the G0/G1-phase of the cell cycle. Further analysis revealed that proliferation arrest in normal cells is due to p53/p21 activation, which is AMPK-dependent and ATM-independent. In cancer cells, serum starvation also decreased the fraction of S-phase cells but to a minor extent. In contrast to normal cells, serum starvation-induced p53 activation in cancer cells is both AMPK- and ATM-dependent. Combination of CDDP with serum starvation in vitro increased the activation of ATM/Chk2/p53 signaling pathway compared to either treatment alone resulting in an enhanced sensitization of cancer cells to CDDP. Finally, short-term food starvation dramatically increased the sensitivity of human tumor xenografts to cisplatin as indicated not only by a significant growth delay, but also by the induction of complete remission in 60% of the animals bearing mesothelioma xenografts, and in 40% of the animals with lung carcinoma xenografts.


In normal cells, serum starvation in vitro induces a cell cycle arrest and protects from CDDP induced toxicity. In contrast, proliferation of cancer cells is only moderately reduced by serum starvation whereas CDDP toxicity is enhanced. The combination of CDDP treatment with short term food starvation improved outcome in vivo. Therefore, starvation has the potential to enhance the therapeutic index of cisplatin-based therapy.

Serum starvation; short-term food starvation (STS); cisplatin therapy; ATM/Chk2/p53 signaling; AMPK