In this study, we investigated the effects and the underlying molecular mechanisms of the multi-kinase inhibitor sorafenib in a panel of breast cancer cell lines. Sorafenib inhibited cell proliferation and induced apoptosis through the mitochondrial pathway. These effects were neither correlated with modulation of MAPK and AKT pathways nor dependent on the ERa status. Sorafenib promoted an early perturbation of mitochondrial function, inducing a deep depolarization of mitochondrial membrane, associated with drop of intracellular ATP levels and increase of ROS generation. As a response to this stress condition, the energy sensor AMPK was rapidly activated in all the cell lines analyzed. In MCF-7 and SKBR3 cells, AMPK enhanced glucose uptake by up-regulating the expression of GLUT-1 glucose transporter, as also demonstrated by AMPKa1 RNA interference, and stimulated aerobic glycolysis thus increasing lactate production. Moreover, the GLUT-1 inhibitor fasentin blocked sorafenib- induced glucose uptake and potentiated its cytotoxic activity in SKBR3 cells. Persistent activation of AMPK by sorafenib finally led to the impairment of glucose metabolism both in MCF-7 and SKBR3 cells as well as in the highly glycolytic MDA-MB-231 cells, resulting in cell death. This previously unrecognized long-term effect of sorafenib was mediated by AMPK-dependent inhibition of the mTORC1 pathway. Suppression of mTORC1 activity was sufficient for sorafenib to hinder glucose utilization in breast cancer cells, as demonstrated by the observation that the mTORC1 inhibitor rapamycin induced a comparable down-regulation of GLUT-1 expression and glucose uptake. The key role of AMPK-dependent inhibition of mTORC1 in sorafenib mechanisms of action was confirmed by AMPKa1 silencing, which restored mTORC1 activity conferring a significant protection from cell death. This study provides insights into the molecular mechanisms driving sorafenib anti-tumoral activity in breast cancer, and supports the need for going on with clinical trials aimed at proving the efficacy of sorafenib for breast cancer treatment.
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