The mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway is a critical target for cancer treatment and the mTOR inhibitor everolimus (RAD001) has been approved for treatment of renal cell carcinoma (RCC). However, the limited efficacy of RAD001 has led to the development of drug resistance. Autophagy is closely related to cell survival and death, which may be activated under RAD001 stimulation. The aim of the present study was to identify the underlying mechanisms of RAD001 resistance in RCC cells through cytoprotective autophagy involving activation of the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway.
RAD001 strongly induced autophagy of RCC cells in a dose- and time-dependent manner, as confirmed by Western blot analysis. Importantly, suppression of autophagy by the pharmacological inhibitor chloroquine effectively enhanced RAD001-induced apoptotic cytotoxicity, as demonstrated by the 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) assay and Western blot analysis, indicating a cytoprotective role for RAD001-induced autophagy. In addition, as was shown by the MTT assay, flow cytometry, and Western blot analysis, RAD001 robustly activated ERK, but not c-Jun N-terminal kinase and p38. Activation of ERK was inhibited by the pharmacological inhibitor selumetinib (AZD6244), which effectively promoted RAD001-induced cell death. Moreover, employing AZD6244 markedly attenuated RAD001-induced autophagy and enhanced RAD001-induced apoptosis, which play a central role in RAD001-induced cell death. Furthermore, RAD001-induced autophagy is regulated by ERK-mediated phosphorylation of Beclin-1 and B-cell lymphoma 2, as confirmed by Western blot analysis.