Research ArticlePharmacology

ONC201 kills solid tumor cells by triggering an integrated stress response dependent on ATF4 activation by specific eIF2α kinases

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Science Signaling  16 Feb 2016:
Vol. 9, Issue 415, pp. ra18
DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.aac4374

Stressing cancer cells to death

The anticancer drug ONC201 triggers cell death in various tumor types. A pair of papers (see also the Focus by Greer and Lipkowitz) show that ONC201 activated cell stress pathways that depended on the activation of the transcription factor ATF4. Kline et al. showed this stress response to ONC201 occurred in cells derived from various types of solid tumors, in which ATF4 activation led to an increase in the abundance of the proapoptotic protein TRAIL and its receptor DR5. Ishizawa et al. demonstrated that in acute myeloid leukemia and mantle cell lymphoma, ONC201 triggered apoptosis and inhibited mTORC1 signaling, a pathway that promotes cell growth and proliferation. The findings reveal more details about ONC201’s mechanism of action, potentially enabling patient stratification and future development to improve its efficacy.


ONC201 (also called TIC10) is a small molecule that inactivates the cell proliferation– and cell survival–promoting kinases Akt and ERK and induces cell death through the proapoptotic protein TRAIL. ONC201 is currently in early-phase clinical testing for various malignancies. We found through gene expression and protein analyses that ONC201 triggered an increase in TRAIL abundance and cell death through an integrated stress response (ISR) involving the transcription factor ATF4, the transactivator CHOP, and the TRAIL receptor DR5. ATF4 was not activated in ONC201-resistant cancer cells, and in ONC201-sensitive cells, knockdown of ATF4 or CHOP partially abrogated ONC201-induced cytotoxicity and diminished the ONC201-stimulated increase in DR5 abundance. The activation of ATF4 in response to ONC201 required the kinases HRI and PKR, which phosphorylate and activate the translation initiation factor eIF2α. ONC201 rapidly triggered cell cycle arrest, which was associated with decreased abundance of cyclin D1, decreased activity of the kinase complex mTORC1, and dephosphorylation of the retinoblastoma (Rb) protein. The abundance of X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis protein (XIAP) negatively correlated with the extent of apoptosis in response to ONC201. These effects of ONC201 were independent of whether cancer cells had normal or mutant p53. Thus, ONC201 induces cell death through the coordinated induction of TRAIL by an ISR pathway.

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