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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Visualization of proteolytic activity associated with the apoptotic response in cancer cells

  • Author(s): Tajon, Cheryl
  • Advisor(s): Craik, Charles S
  • et al.

Caspases execute programmed cell death, where low levels of caspase activity are linked to cancer. Chemotherapies utilize induction of apoptosis as a key mechanism for cancer treatment, where caspase-3 is a major player involved in dismantling these aberrant cells. The ability to sensitively measure the initial caspase-3 cleavage events during apoptosis is important for understanding the initiation of this complex cellular process, however, current ensemble methods are not sensitive enough to measure single cleavage events in cells. By utilizing the optical properties of plasmon coupling, peptide-linked gold nanoparticles were developed to enable single molecule imaging of caspase-3 activity in two different cancer systems. Au crown nanoparticles were assembled in a multimeric fashion to overcome the high and heterogeneous background scattering of live cells. In a colon cancer (SW620) cell line challenged with tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), single molecule trajectories show early stage caspase-3 activation within minutes, which was not detectable by ensemble assays until 23 hours. Variability in caspase-3 activation among the population of cells was identified and likely a result of each cell's specific resistance to death receptor-induced apoptosis. Following these studies, improvements by way of sensitivity and selectivity were tailored into an improved nanosensor construct. Au nanoshell dimers were prepared as a comparably bright construct with 1) reduced heterogeneity compared to the synthesis of the crown nanoparticles and 2) a peptide sequence highly selective for caspase-3. Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) K562 cells were assessed for their early apoptotic response upon treatment with dasatinib, a clinically approved tyrosine kinase inhibitor that specifically targets BCR-ABL. It has been demonstrated that inhibition of BCR-ABL by dasatinib commits K562 cells to apoptosis. Single molecule experiments with Au nanoshell dimers show caspase-3 activation as early as 8 hours than previously reported. This suggests an early commitment to apoptosis that precedes the competing fate of growth factor mediated survival in CML patient-derived BCR-ABL cells. These nanosensors are sensitive and selective in observing caspase-3 activation compared to ensemble methods; and allow the possibility to detect caspase-3 activity for use as a drug screening or diagnostic tool for personalized care in the treatment of cancer.

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