Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Ceramide targets xIAP and cIAP1 to sensitize metastatic colon and breast cancer cells to apoptosis induction to suppress tumor progression

Amy V Paschall1, Mary A Zimmerman1, Christina M Torres1, Dafeng Yang1, May R Chen1, Xia Li1, Erhard Bieberich2, Aiping Bai3, Jacek Bielawski3, Alicja Bielawska3 and Kebin Liu14*

  • * Corresponding author: Kebin Liu

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Regents University, Augusta, GA, USA

2 Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Regents University, Augusta, GA, USA

3 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425, USA

4 Cancer Center, Georgia Regents University, Augusta, GA 30912, USA

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BMC Cancer 2014, 14:24  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-14-24

Published: 15 January 2014



Ceramide is a bioeffector that mediates various cellular processes, including apoptosis. However, the mechanism underlying ceramide function in apoptosis is apparently cell type-dependent and is not well-understood. We aimed at identifying molecular targets of ceramide in metastatic human colon and breast cancer cells, and determining the efficacy of ceramide analog in suppression of colon and breast cancer metastasis.


The activity of and mechanism underlying ceramide as a cytotoxic agent, and as a sensitizer for Fas-mediated apoptosis was analyzed in human cell lines established from primary or metastatic colon and breast cancers. The efficacy of ceramide analog LCL85 in suppression of metastasis was examined in preclinical mouse tumor models.


Exposure of human colon carcinoma cells to ceramide analog LCL85 results in apoptosis in a dose-dependent manner. Interestingly, a sublethal dose of LCL85 increased C16 ceramide content and overcame tumor cell resistance to Fas-mediated apoptosis. Subsequently, treatment of tumor cells with exogenous C16 ceramide resulted in increased tumor cell sensitivity to Fas-mediated apoptosis. LCL85 resembles Smac mimetic BV6 in sensitization of colon carcinoma cells to Fas-mediated apoptosis by inducing proteasomal degradation of cIAP1 and xIAP proteins. LCL85 also decreased xIAP1 and cIAP1 protein levels and sensitized metastatic human breast cancer cells to Fas-mediated apoptosis. Silencing xIAP and cIAP1 with specific siRNAs significantly increased the metastatic human colon carcinoma cell sensitivity to Fas-mediated apoptosis, suggesting that IAP proteins mediate apoptosis resistance in metastatic human colon carcinoma cells and ceramide induces IAP protein degradation to sensitize the tumor cells to apoptosis induction. Consistent with its apoptosis sensitization activity, subtoxic doses of LCL85 suppressed colon carcinoma cell metastatic potential in an experimental lung metastasis mouse model, as well as breast cancer growth and spontaneous lung metastasis in an orthotopic breast cancer mouse model.


We have identified xIAP and cIAP1 as molecular targets of ceramide and determined that ceramide analog LCL85 is an effective sensitizer in overcoming resistance of human cell lines established from metastatic colon and breast cancers to apoptosis induction to suppress metastasis in vivo.

Ceramide; xIAP; cIAP1; Bcl-xL; Fas; Apoptosis sensitization