The emergence of multidrug-resistant cancers and the lack of targeted therapies for many cancers underscore an unmet need for new therapeutics with novel modes of action towards cancer cells. Host-defense peptides often exhibit selective cytotoxicity towards cancer cells and show potential as anti-cancer therapeutics. Here, we screen 26 naturally occurring variants of the peptide pleurocidin for cytotoxic and anti-cancer activities, and investigate the underlying mechanism of action. Cytotoxicities were assessed in vitro using cell-based assays and in vivo using zebrafish embryos. Morphological changes were assessed by both transmission and scanning electron microscopy, and functional assays were performed on zebrafish embryos to investigate the mechanism of cell death. A total of 14 peptides were virtually inactive against HL60 human leukemia cells, whereas 12 caused >50% death at ≤32 μg/ml. Morphological changes characteristic of oncosis were evident by electron microscopy after only 1 minute of treatment with 32 μg/ml of variant NRC-03. Only two peptides were hemolytic. Four peptides showed no toxicity towards zebrafish embryos at the highest concentration tested (25μM; ~64μg/ml) and one peptide was highly toxic, killing 4-hour-post-fertilization (hpf) embryos immediately after exposure to 1 μM peptide. Four other peptides killed embryos after 24 hours of exposure at 1 μM. Most peptides caused mortality at one or more developmental stages only after continuous exposure (24 hours) with higher lethal doses (≥5 μM). Pleurocidin NRC-03 bound to embryos and induced the release of superoxide, caused an increase in the number of TUNEL-positive nuclei, and caused membrane damage and the loss of embryonic epithelial integrity, marked by the exclusion of cells from the outer epithelium and the appearance of F-actin within the circumferential cells of the repair site. Our results indicate that specific pleurocidin variants are attractive cancer-selective agents that selectively induce cell death in target cells but leave non-target cells such as erythrocytes and non-transformed cells unaffected.
- Received November 25, 2010.
- Accepted May 4, 2011.
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