Molecular subtype-specific responses of colon cancer cells to the SMAC mimetic Birinapant

Michael Fichtner, Emir Bozkurt, Manuela Salvucci, Christopher McCann, Katherine A McAllister, Luise Halang, Heiko Düssmann, Sinéad Kinsella, Nyree Crawford, Tamas Sessler, Daniel B Longley, Jochen H M Prehn

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Colorectal cancer is a molecularly heterogeneous disease. Responses to genotoxic chemotherapy in the adjuvant or palliative setting vary greatly between patients, and colorectal cancer cells often resist chemotherapy by evading apoptosis. Antagonists of an inhibitor of apoptosis proteins (IAPs) can restore defective apoptosis signaling by degrading cIAP1 and cIAP2 proteins and by inhibition of XIAP. Due to the multiple molecular mechanisms-of-action of these targets, responses to IAP antagonist may differ between molecularly distinct colon cancer cells. In this study, responses to the IAP antagonist Birinapant and oxaliplatin/5-fluorouracil (5-FU) were investigated in 14 colon cancer cell lines, representing the consensus molecular subtypes (CMS). Treatment with Birinapant alone did not result in a substantial increase in apoptotic cells in this cell line panel. Annexin-V/PI assays quantified by flow cytometry and high-content screening showed that Birinapant increased responses of CMS1 and partially CMS3 cell lines to oxaliplatin/5-FU, whereas CMS2 cells were not effectively sensitized. FRET-based imaging of caspase-8 and -3 activation validated these differences at the single-cell level, with CMS1 cells displaying sustained activation of caspase-8-like activity during Birinapant and oxaliplatin/5-FU co-treatment, ultimately activating the intrinsic mitochondrial apoptosis pathway. In CMS2 cell lines, Birinapant exhibited synergistic effects in combination with TNFα, suggesting that Birinapant can restore extrinsic apoptosis signaling in the context of inflammatory signals in this subtype. To explore this further, we co-cultured CMS2 and CMS1 colon cancer cells with peripheral blood mononuclear cells. We observed increased cell death during Birinapant single treatment in these co-cultures, which was abrogated by anti-TNFα-neutralizing antibodies. Collectively, our study demonstrates that IAP inhibition is a promising modulator of response to oxaliplatin/5-FU in colorectal cancers of the CMS1 subtype, and may show promise as in the CMS2 subtype, suggesting that molecular subtyping may aid as a patient stratification tool for IAP antagonists in this disease.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1020
Number of pages16
JournalCell, Death & Disease
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2020


  • Apoptosis
  • Colonic Neoplasms/drug therapy
  • Dipeptides/pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Indoles/pharmacology


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