Fenretinide induces autophagic cell death in caspase-defective breast cancer cells

Barbara Fazi, Wilfried Bursch, Gian Maria Fimia, Roberta Nardacci, Mauro Piacentini, Federica Di Sano, Lucia Piredda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The elimination of tumor cells by apoptosis is the main mechanism of action of chemotherapeutic drugs. More recently, autophagic cell death has been shown to trigger a nonapoptotic cell death program in cancer cells displaying functional defects of caspases. Fenretinide (FenR), a synthetic derivative of retinoic acid, promotes growth inhibition and induces apoptosis in a wide range of tumor cell types. The present study was designed to evaluate the ability of fenretinide to induce caspase-independent cell death and to this aim we used the human mammary carcinoma cell line MCF-7, lacking functional caspase-3 activity. We demonstrated that in these cells fenretinide is able to trigger an autophagic cell death pathway. In particular we found that fenretinide treatment resulted in the increase in Beclin 1 expression, the conversion of the soluble form of LC3 to the autophagic vesicle-associated form LC3-II and its shift from diffuse to punctate staining and finally the increase in lysosomes/ autophagosomes. By contrast, caspase-3 reconstituted MCF-7 cell line showed apoptotic cell death features in response to fenretinide treatment. These data strongly suggest that fenretinide does not invariably elicit an apoptotic response but it is able to induce autophagy when apoptotic pathway is deregulated. The understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in fenretinide action is important for the future design of therapies employing this retinoid in breast cancer treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)435-441
Number of pages7
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - May 16 2008


  • Apoptosis
  • Autophagy
  • Caspase-3
  • Fenretinide
  • MCF-7

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cell Biology
  • Molecular Biology

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