A caspase-3 'death-switch' in colorectal cancer cells for induced and synchronous tumor apoptosis in vitro and in vivo facilitates the development of minimally invasive cell death biomarkers

K. L. Simpson, C. Cawthorne, C. Zhou, C. L. Hodgkinson, M. J. Walker, F. Trapani, M. Kadirvel, G. Brown, M. J. Dawson, M. MacFarlane, K. J. Williams, A. D. Whetton, C. Dive*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
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Novel anticancer drugs targeting key apoptosis regulators have been developed and are undergoing clinical trials. Pharmacodynamic biomarkers to define the optimum dose of drug that provokes tumor apoptosis are in demand; acquisition of longitudinal tumor biopsies is a significant challenge and minimally invasive biomarkers are required. Considering this, we have developed and validated a preclinical 'death-switch' model for the discovery of secreted biomarkers of tumour apoptosis using in vitro proteomics and in vivo evaluation of the novel imaging probe [18F]ML-10 for non-invasive detection of apoptosis using positron emission tomography (PET). The 'death-switch' is a constitutively active mutant caspase-3 that is robustly induced by doxycycline to drive synchronous apoptosis in human colorectal cancer cells in vitro or grown as tumor xenografts. Deathswitch induction caused caspase-dependent apoptosis between 3 and 24 hours in vitro and regression of 'death-switched' xenografts occurred within 24 h correlating with the percentage of apoptotic cells in tumor and levels of an established cell death biomarker (cleaved cytokeratin-18) in the blood. We sought to define secreted biomarkers of tumor apoptosis from cultured cells using Discovery Isobaric Tag proteomics, which may provide candidates to validate in blood. Early after caspase-3 activation, levels of normally secreted proteins were decreased (e.g. Gelsolin and Midkine) and proteins including CD44 and High Mobility Group protein B1 (HMGB1) that were released into cell culture media in vitro were also identified in the bloodstream of mice bearing death-switched tumors. We also exemplify the utility of the death-switch model for the validation of apoptotic imaging probes using [18F]ML-10, a PET tracer currently in clinical trials. Results showed increased tracer uptake of [18F]ML-10 in tumours undergoing apoptosis, compared with matched tumour controls imaged in the same animal. Overall, the death-switch model represents a robust and versatile tool for the discovery and validation of apoptosis biomarkers.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere613
Number of pages12
JournalCell Death and Disease
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2 May 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements. CD, KLS, CZ, CLS, FT and MJD are funded by Cancer Research UK (Paterson Institute for Cancer Research Core Funding from Grant Code: C147/A12328, Clinical Research Initiative Grant Code: C357/A12197). CC is funded by the Manchester Cancer Research Centre. MW is funded by Experimental Cancer Medicines Centre Grant. MM is funded by the Medical Research Council, UK (Intramural Grant in Aid Code MCA600). ADW is funded by Leukaemia Lymphoma Research UK (LRF code 08004).


  • Apoptosis
  • Biomarkers
  • Capase-3
  • Death-switch
  • Imaging
  • Proteomics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Cell Biology
  • Cancer Research


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