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Open Access Research article

Natural resistance to ascorbic acid induced oxidative stress is mainly mediated by catalase activity in human cancer cells and catalase-silencing sensitizes to oxidative stress

Christoph Klingelhoeffer1, Ulrike Kämmerer2, Monika Koospal1, Bettina Mühling1, Manuela Schneider1, Michaela Kapp2, Alexander Kübler3, Christoph-Thomas Germer4 and Christoph Otto1*

Author Affiliations

1 Experimental Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Würzburg Hospital, Oberdürrbacher Str. 6, D-97080, Würzburg, Germany

2 Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Würzburg Hospital, Josef-Schneider-Str. 4, D-97080, Würzburg, Germany

3 Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, University of Würzburg Hospital, Pleicherwall 2, D-97070, Würzburg, Germany

4 Department of Surgery, University of Würzburg Hospital, Oberdürrbacher Str. 6, D-97080, Würzburg, Germany

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012, 12:61  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-61

Published: 2 May 2012



Ascorbic acid demonstrates a cytotoxic effect by generating hydrogen peroxide, a reactive oxygen species (ROS) involved in oxidative cell stress. A panel of eleven human cancer cell lines, glioblastoma and carcinoma, were exposed to serial dilutions of ascorbic acid (5-100 mmol/L). The purpose of this study was to analyse the impact of catalase, an important hydrogen peroxide-detoxifying enzyme, on the resistance of cancer cells to ascorbic acid mediated oxidative stress.


Effective concentration (EC50) values, which indicate the concentration of ascorbic acid that reduced the number of viable cells by 50%, were detected with the crystal violet assay. The level of intracellular catalase protein and enzyme activity was determined. Expression of catalase was silenced by catalase-specific short hairpin RNA (sh-RNA) in BT-20 breast carcinoma cells. Oxidative cell stress induced apoptosis was measured by a caspase luminescent assay.


The tested human cancer cell lines demonstrated obvious differences in their resistance to ascorbic acid mediated oxidative cell stress. Forty-five percent of the cell lines had an EC50 > 20 mmol/L and fifty-five percent had an EC50 < 20 mmol/L. With an EC50 of 2.6–5.5 mmol/L, glioblastoma cells were the most susceptible cancer cell lines analysed in this study. A correlation between catalase activity and the susceptibility to ascorbic acid was observed. To study the possible protective role of catalase on the resistance of cancer cells to oxidative cell stress, the expression of catalase in the breast carcinoma cell line BT-20, which cells were highly resistant to the exposure to ascorbic acid (EC50: 94,9 mmol/L), was silenced with specific sh-RNA. The effect was that catalase-silenced BT-20 cells (BT-20 KD-CAT) became more susceptible to high concentrations of ascorbic acid (50 and 100 mmol/L).


Fifty-five percent of the human cancer cell lines tested were unable to protect themselves against oxidative stress mediated by ascorbic acid induced hydrogen peroxide production. The antioxidative enzyme catalase is important to protect cancer cells against cytotoxic hydrogen peroxide. Silenced catalase expression increased the susceptibility of the formerly resistant cancer cell line BT-20 to oxidative stress.