Open Access

Inhibition of autophagy attenuated curcumol‑induced apoptosis in MG‑63 human osteosarcoma cells via Janus kinase signaling pathway

  • Authors:
    • Chuan Zhang
    • Li‑Min Wang
  • View Affiliations

  • Published online on: September 21, 2017
  • Pages:6387-6394
  • Copyright: © Zhang et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution License.

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The present study aimed to investigate whether autophagy was triggered by curcumol and to explore the association between autophagy and apoptosis of MG‑63 cells and the underlying mechanism. MG‑63 cells were cultured in vitro. An MTT assay was performed to evaluate the proliferation inhibition of the MG‑63 osteosarcoma cell line by curcumol. Fluorescein isothiocyanate‑Annexin V/propidium iodide staining flow cytometry was performed to analyze the apoptotic rate of cells. The morphological alterations of cell nuclei were evaluated by Hoechst 33258 viable cell staining. The effects of autophagy in cells was investigated by green fluorescent protein (GFP)‑light chain 3 (LC3) transfection and using a fluorescence microscope. The expression levels of LC3II, LC3I and cleaved caspase‑3 and Janus kinase (JNK) signaling pathway activation were determined by western blot analysis. Cell proliferation was inhibited by curcumol in a dose‑ and time‑dependent manner. Curcumol induced apoptosis by the caspase‑dependent signaling pathway in MG‑63 cells. The present study demonstrated that curcumol could induce autophagy of MG‑63 cells, which was evaluated by transmission electron microscopy. Compared with the curcumol treatment alone group, the GFP‑LC3‑transfected green fluorescence plasmids and the LC3II/LC3I levels in cells of the curcumol and chloroquine (CQ) treatment group were upregulated, and the apoptotic ratio was downregulated following pretreatment with autophagy inhibitor CQ for 1 h. Furthermore, curcumol treatment induced phosphorylation of the JNK signaling pathway. Of note, pretreatment with the JNK inhibitor, SP600125, decreased the rates of autophagy and apoptosis, suggesting a crucial role served by the JNK signaling pathway in the activation of autophagy by curcumol. Taken together, the results of the present study suggested that activation of the JNK signaling pathway was involved in curcumol‑induced autophagy. Curcumol is a novel drug for chemotherapeutic combination therapy. Curcumol demonstrated potential antitumor activities in MG‑63 cells and may be used as a novel effective reagent in the treatment of osteosarcoma.


Osteosarcoma is the most common type of primary malignant bone tumor in children and young adults (1). Since the development of neoadjuvant chemotherapy, the postoperative five-year survival rate of patients with non-metastatic osteosarcoma has improved from <20% to 60–70% (2); however, resistance to chemotherapy is common, and numerous chemotherapeutic drugs have serious side effects. In recent years an increasing number of studies have focused on identifying safe and effective antitumor drugs (3,4).

Curcumol, the dried root of Rhizoma Curcumae zedoariae, has been used for the treatment of antiviral‚ anti-inflammatory and for hepatoprotection (57) and its derivatives (817), which have been reported to have anticancer activities in various types of cancer such as leukemia, glioma, lung, liver and colorectal cancer. Furthermore, Zhao et al (18) reported that β-element curcumol derivatives potentiated the effect of taxanes on p53 mutant H23 cells and p53 null H358 cells. Lin et al (19), Liu et al (20) and Liu et al (21) reported that β-Elemene, the curcumol derivatives, could induce protective autophagy from apoptosis in hapatoma cell, non-small-cell lung cancer and gastric cells respectively. However, Zhou et al (22) demonstrated that β-Elemene increased autophagic apoptosis and drug sensitivity in SPC-A-1/DDP cells by inducing beclin-1 expression. Besides, Mu et al (23) reported that β-Elemene enhanced the efficacy of gefitinib on glioblastoma multiforme cells through the inhibition of the EGFR signaling pathway.

Programmed cell death has been subdivided into two categories (24): Apoptosis (type I) and autophagic cell death (type II). There is an intricate crosstalk between autophagy and apoptosis (25). In certain instances, autophagy may inhibit apoptosis and promote cell survival, whereas in other instances, autophagy may enhance apoptosis (26,27). To the best of our knowledge, no previous studies have investigated the effects of curcumol in the MG-63 osteosarcoma cell line, and autophagy has not been documented. The aim of the present study was to explore a possible association between autophagy and apoptosis in MG-63 human osteosarcoma cells exposed to curcumol and the potential underlying mechanism.

Materials and methods


MG-63 osteosarcoma cells were purchased from the Shanghai Institute of Cell Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Shanghai, China). Curcumol (purity, >98%) was obtained from National Institutes for Food and Drug Control (Beijing, China) and dissolved in dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) as a stock solution and stored at 20°C. Curcumol was then diluted with Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium (DMEM; Gibco; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc., Waltham, MA, USA) to the desired working concentration prior to each experiment. SP600125 was purchased from Gibco (Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.). The broad- spectrum caspase inhibitor (z-VAD-fmk) was obtained from EMD Millipore (Billerica, MA, USA). Fetal bovine serum was purchased from Hangzhou Sijiqing Biological Engineering Materials Co., Ltd. (Hangzhou, China). Chloroquine (CQ) and MTT were purchased from Sigma-Aldrich (Merck Millipore, Darmstadt, Germany). Lipofectamine 2000 transfection reagent was obtained from Invitrogen (Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.). Rabbit monoclonal anti-caspase-3 and anti-light chain 3 (LC3) antibodies were purchased from Cell Signaling Technology, Inc. (Danvers, MA, USA).

Cell culture and viability assay

MG-63 cells were maintained in DMEM supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum, 100 U/ml penicillin and 100 µg/ml streptomycin at 37°C in a 5% CO2 incubator. The cells in mid-log phase were used in the experiments. Cell viability was determined using an MTT assay. The MG-63 cells were seeded in 96-well flat bottom microtiter microplates (1×104 cells/well), and then treated with 15, 30, 60 and 120 mg/l curcumol at room temperature for 0, 12, 24 and 48 h, respectively. The control group and zero adjustment well were also set up. The absorbance value per well at 570 nm was read using an automatic multiwell spectrophotometer (Power Wave X; BioTek Instruments Inc., Winooski, VT, USA). All the MTT assays were performed in triplicate. The inhibitory rate for the proliferation of MG-63 cells was determined according to the formula: (1 - experimental absorbance value/control absorbance value) × 100%. Half maximal inhibitory concentration (IC50) values were then evaluated using SPSS software version 16.0 (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA).

Detection of apoptosis

Annexin V-fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC)/propidium iodide (PI) double staining assay was performed to detect the apoptotic ratio of MG-63 cells. The cells were cultured with 15, 30, 60 and 120 mg/l curcumol for 48 h, trypsinized and then washed twice with ice-cold PBS. The cells were then reacted with FITC-conjugated Annexin V and PI for 15 min at room temperature in the dark, followed by cytometric analysis (EPICS XL; Beckman Coulter, Inc., Brea, CA, USA) within 30 min of staining. Each group was repeatedly evaluated three times and each sample included 1×104 cells.

Hoechst 33258 staining

MG-63 cells at the logarithmic growth phase were seeded in 96-well plates with a cell density of 1×104/ml. Following fixation with 3.7% paraformaldelyde for 30 min at room temperature, cells were washed with PBS and stained with 10 mg/l Hoechst 33258 at 37°C for 15 min. The confocal fluorescence microscope (DM2500; Leica Microsystems GmbH, Wetzlar, Germany) equipped with an ultraviolet filter was used to observed MG-63 cells. The images were recorded and processed on a computer with a digital camera attached to the microscope. Normal nuclei stained blue and apoptotic nuclei were identified as condensed or fragmented nuclei stained bright blue.

Green fluorescent protein (GFP)-LC3 dot assay

Cells were cultured in 6-well plates at 37°C and transfected with GFP-LC3 at 15–25°C using Lipofectamine 2000 (Invitrogen; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.), according to the manufacturer's protocol. Subsequently, the cells were treated with 63.5 mg/l curcumol with or without CQ for 48 h. For observation, the cells were fixed with 4% formaldehyde for 15 min, and then washed twice in cold PBS. The induction of autophagy was quantified by evaluating the percentage of cells in each group that contained LC3 aggregates by observation under a Leica DM2500 confocal laser-scanning microscope.

Western blot analysis protein samples were separated electrophoretically by SDS-PAGE (12%) and transferred onto a polyvinylidene difluoride membrane. The membrane was incubated with 5% non-fat dry milk overnight at room temperature. The membrane was incubated with specific primary antibodies (dilution, 1:1,000) against cleaved caspase-3, LC3I, LC3II, t-JNK and p-JNK. IgG goat anti-rabbit and goat anti-mouse secondary antibodies (Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc., Dallas, TX, USA). The bound antibodies were detected by the enhanced chemiluminescence method and densitometric analysis.

Statistical analysis

Data are presented as the mean ± standard deviation. The statistical analysis was performed using analysis of variance followed by Dunnett's t-test. P<0.05 was considered to indicate a statistically significant difference.


Curcumol inhibits MG-63 cell proliferation in a dose- and time-dependent manner

As shown in Fig. 1, the results demonstrated that curcumol inhibited the proliferation of MG-63 cells in a dose- and time-dependent manner following treatment with various concentrations of curcumol (15, 30, 60 and 120 mg/l) for 24, 48 and 72 h, respectively, compared with the control group. According to the MTT assays, the IC50 values of MG-63 cells following curcumol treatment for 48 h was 63.5 mg/l. As the length of the curcumol treatment increased and the concentration of the dose administered increased, the proliferation inhibitory effect of curcumol on MG-63 cells demonstrated greater significance (P<0.05).

Curcumol triggers caspase-dependent apoptosis in MG-63 cells

Flow cytometric analysis and Hoechst 33258 staining were used to evaluate the apoptotic rates of MG-63 cells. As shown in Fig. 2A and B, compared with the control group (1.53±0.21%), the apoptosis ratio shifted as the treatment durations increased (P<0.05). The morphological alterations of apoptotic nuclei were revealed by Hoechst 33258 staining; the control group demonstrated uniformly stained nuclei, whereas apoptotic nuclei were condensed or fragmented with light blue or white fluorescence (Fig. 2C and D). An increasing number of apoptotic cells with brighter fluorescence were observed as the treatment durations lengthened.

In order to further assess the rate of apoptosis induced by curcumol, western blot analysis was used to determine the expression levels of cleaved caspase-3. Apoptosis can be activated by extrinsic stimuli by cell surface death receptors and intrinsic stimuli by the mitochondrial signaling pathway (28); however, caspase-3 is the core effector of these two methods and the activation of caspase-3 ultimately induces irreversible cell death (29,30). As shown in Fig. 2E and F, cleaved caspase-3 expression gradually increased as the incubation periods increased. In order to determine whether cell death was caspase-dependent, the present study further evaluated the effect of the pan caspase inhibitor z-VAD-fmk on curcumol-induced cell viability inhibition. As presented in Fig. 2G, z-VAD-fmk induced the reduction of cell viability, decrease from 48.8 to 8.99% (Fig. 2G). Taken together, the results indicated that curcumol induced MG-63 cell death by a caspase-dependent pathway.

Curcumol-induced autophagy in MG-63 cells

As presented in Fig. 3A, the present study observed that the ultrastructural characteristics of MG-63 cells treated with curcumol demonstrated a classical image of autophagic vacuoles sequestrating cytoplasm and organelles by transmission electron microscopy. Microtubule-associated protein 1, LC3, similar to yeast autophagy-related protein 8, generally serve as autophagic markers that exist as two forms, LC3-I and LC3-II (31). When autophagy is activated, LC3I transforms into LC3II and LC3II/LC3I is upregulated (32). In order to verify this previous finding, the present study investigated whether curcumol increased the LC3II/LC3II level. The results of western blotting demonstrated that the ratio of LC3II/LC3I shifted in a dose- and time- manner (Fig. 3B-E).

Figure 3.

Curcumol-triggered autophagy in MG-63 cells. (A) Ultrastructural observations in MG-63 cells using a transmission electron microscope. (a) Untreated MG-63 cells exhibited normal morphology; (b) MG-63 cells treated with 63.5 mg/l curcumol for 48 h demonstrated typical autophagosome morphology with a double membrane encapsulating the damaged organelles and extra protein. (B) MG-63 cells were treated with various doses of curcumol for 48 h, and the protein level of LC3II/LC3I were determined by western blotting. (C) Densitometric analysis results of LC3II/LC3I protein levels are presented as the mean ± standard deviation. The results (mean ± standard error) were from 3 independent experiments. (D) The protein level of LC3II/LC3I was evaluated by western blotting in MG-63 cells treated with 63.5 mg/l curcumol for the indicated time periods. (E) Densitometric analysis of LC3I/LC3II level. (F) Cells transiently transfected with GFP-LC3 plasmids, which were exposed to 63.5 mg/l curcumol for 48 h with or without CQ. A confocal microscope was used to determine GFP-LC3 fluorescence distribution. The punctate GFP-LC3 was indicative of autophagosomes. (a) Control group; (b) CQ group; (c) curcumol group; (d) curcumol+CQ group. (G) Densitometric analysis of GFP-LC3-positive plasmids (H) The level of LC3II/LC3I was evaluated by western blotting in the presence or absence of CQ. (I) Densitometric analysis of LC3I and LC3II expression levels. #P<0.05 compared with control group; *P<0.05 compared with curcumol group. LC3, light chain 3; CQ, chloroquine; GFP, green fluorescent protein; cur, curcumol.

Autophagy is a dynamic process and could be accumulated in the condition of inhibition at the final stage, and therefore autophagic flux should be synchronously monitored. CQ has been used as an autophagy inhibitor due to destruction of the acidic environment and subsequent blocking of autophagosome in combination with lysosomes (31,32). In the present study autophagy was increased by curcumol treatment and CQ was used in the following experiment as an autophagy inhibitor.

GFP-LC3 plasmid transient transfection and altering the LC3II/LC3I ratios were performed in order to monitor the efficiency of autophagosomes and to reflect the autophagic flux. As presented in Fig. 3F and G, compared with the control group (1.89±0.58%), the CQ treatment alone group demonstrated no statistical significance, the curcumol group demonstrated increased percentages of MG-63 cells positive for LC3II/LC3I (23.12±1.75%) and the combined curcumol and CQ group was (39.17±2.33%; P<0.05). Western blotting results (Fig. 3H and I) revealed that compared with the control and CQ treatment groups, the ratio of LC3II/LC3I in the curcumol treatment group shifted; pre-treatment with CQ followed by incubation in 63.5 mg/l curcumol increased the ratio and higher expression levels of LC3I/LC3II were observed (P<0.05). In conclusion, curcumol treatment induced LC3-II accumulation and autophagic flux in MG-63 cells.

Inhibition of curcumol-mediated autophagy attenuates apoptosis

As presented in Fig. 4A, MG-63 cells were incubated with 63.5 mg/l curcumol for 48 h, with or without pre-treatment with CQ for 1 h, and subsequently cell viability was evaluated by MTT assay. Compared with the curcumol treatment group, the cell viability was increased in cells that had also been pre-treated with CQ for 1 h. In addition, pretreatment with CQ increased LC3-II/LC3I accumulation and decreased the cleaved caspase-3 expression level (Fig. 4B and C). In conclusion, these results clearly demonstrated that autophagic inhibition by CQ treatment attenuated apoptosis in MG-63 cells. Autophagic cell death induced by curcumol treatment contributed to apoptosis of MG-63 cells.

Underlying mechanism of curcumol-induced autophagy

An increasing number of studies have indicated that the c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) signaling pathway and the activation of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) family members may serve an important role in various forms of autophagy (33,34). The present study demonstrated that curcumol induced the phosphorylation of JNK in a time-dependent manner (P<0.05), whereas total-JNK content demonstrated no change, indicating that curcumol activated the JNK signaling pathway in MG-63 cells (Fig. 5A and B). To further confirm the role of the JNK signaling pathway in curcumol-induced autophagy, a selective inhibitor of JNK, SP600125, was administered. Furthermore, pretreatment with SP600125 significantly attenuated the expression levels of LC3II/LC3I and p-JNK compared with the curcumol group (Fig. 5C and D).


The results of the present study have demonstrated that curcumol inhibited cell proliferation of MG-63 cells in a concentration- and time-dependent manner. Consistent with previous studies (816), flow cytometric analysis and Hoechst 33258 staining revealed that curcumol could trigger apoptosis. Zhang et al (10) and Chen et al (16) demonstrated that curcumol induced apoptosis in lung cancer cells via the caspase-independent mitochondrial pathway and suppression of B-cell lymphoma 2. However, the present study revealed that cleaved caspase-3 accumulated during curcumol treatment in MG-63 cells. Pre-incubation with the pancaspase inhibitor Z-VAD-FMK attenuated apoptosis induced by curcumol, which was observed by performing an MTT assay. Taken together, these results indicated that curcumol induced caspase-dependent apoptosis.

Autophagy is a highly conserved process in eukaryotes in which the cytoplasm, including excess or aberrant organelles, is sequestered into double-membrane vesicles and delivered to the degradative organelle, the lysosome/vacuole, for breakdown (35), leading to the eventual recycling of the resulting macromolecules. While under pathological conditions, autophagy contributes to the turnover of long-lived proteins and elimination of damaged or aged organelles to maintain cell homeostasis (36). However, extensive autophagy or inappropriate activation of autophagy results in autophagic cell death (type II programmed cell death) (37,38).

Previous studies have investigated curcumol-triggered apoptosis (816). To the best of our knowledge, the present study provided evidence for the first time that curcumol may trigger autophagy in MG-63 cells: The classical autophagic double membrane image of MG-63 cells was observed using a transmission electron microscope; western blot analysis revealed that the level of LC3II/LC3I shifted in a dose- and time- manner; furthermore, compared with the curcumol treatment group, GFP-LC3 plasmids and LC3II/LC3I were markedly upregulated in the curcumol and CQ treatment group. All these results suggested that autophagic flux was triggered. Taken together, these results demonstrated that curcumol may activate autophagy.

The association between autophagy and apoptosis is complicated. According to various cell types and the effects of stimuli, autophagy is involved in the promotion or inhibition of cancer cell death (36). In the present study, the MTT analysis demonstrated that following pretreatment with autophagy inhibitor CQ, the cell viability of the curcumol and CQ treatment group was upregulated. The western blot analysis also indicated the level of cleaved caspase-3 decreased and LC3II/LC3I expression increased following CQ pre-incubation for 1 h. Therefore, autophagy curcumol triggered MG-63 cell death.

The JNK signaling pathway, one of the MAPK signal transduction pathways, serves a pivotal role in regulatory mechanisms in eukaryotic cells (39). Once activated by upstream kinases, JNK mediates various physiological processes including, inflammation, stress, cell growth, cell development, differentiation and cell death (40). An increasing amount of evidence suggests that the JNK signaling pathway is an important regulator of autophagy under various conditions (41). Thus, the present study investigated whether curcumol-induced autophagy involves this pathway. As shown in Fig. 5A and B, it was demonstrated that curcumol activated the JNK signaling pathway, as p-JNK protein expression level was upregulated in a time-dependent manner. In order to determine whether the JNK signaling pathway participated in curcumol-induced autophagy, selective inhibitors of JNK were administered. As shown in Fig. 5C and D, pretreatment with JNK inhibitor SP600125 inhibited the phosphorylation of the JNK signaling pathway and LC3-II accumulation.

In conclusion, the present findings suggest that curcumol is a potent antitumor agent and exerts its antineoplastic action by inducing cell apoptosis and autophagic cell death via activation of the JNK signaling pathway. These results may be useful for further development of the clinical application of this compound in treating osteosarcoma.



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Zhang, C., & Zhang, C. (2017). Inhibition of autophagy attenuated curcumol‑induced apoptosis in MG‑63 human osteosarcoma cells via Janus kinase signaling pathway. Oncology Letters, 14, 6387-6394.
Zhang, C., Wang, L."Inhibition of autophagy attenuated curcumol‑induced apoptosis in MG‑63 human osteosarcoma cells via Janus kinase signaling pathway". Oncology Letters 14.6 (2017): 6387-6394.
Zhang, C., Wang, L."Inhibition of autophagy attenuated curcumol‑induced apoptosis in MG‑63 human osteosarcoma cells via Janus kinase signaling pathway". Oncology Letters 14, no. 6 (2017): 6387-6394.