Artesunate is the most common treatment for malaria throughout the world. Artesunate has anticancer activity likely through the induction of reactive oxygen species, the same mechanism of action utilized in Plasmodium falciparum infections. Components of the kelch-like ECH-associated protein 1 (KEAP1)/nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (NRF2) pathway, which regulates cellular response to oxidative stress, are mutated in approximately 30% of non-small-cell lung cancers (NSCLC); therefore, we tested the hypothesis that KEAP1 is required for artesunate sensitivity in NSCLC. Dose response assays identified A549 cells, which have a G333C-inactivating mutation in KEAP1, as resistant to artesunate, with an IC50 of 23.6 µM, while H1299 and H1563 cells were sensitive to artesunate, with a 10-fold lower IC50. Knockdown of KEAP1 through siRNA caused increased resistance to artesunate in H1299 cells. Alternatively, the pharmacological inhibition of NRF2, which is activated downstream of KEAP1 loss, by ML385 partially restored sensitivity of A549 cells to artesunate, and the combination of artesunate and ML385 was synergistic in both A549 and H1299 cells. These findings demonstrate that KEAP1 is required for the anticancer activity of artesunate and support the further development of NRF2 inhibitors to target patients with mutations in the KEAP1/NRF2 pathway.

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Published in Cancers, v. 13, issue 8, 1885.

© 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

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This work was support by P30 CA177558.

Related Content

The following are available online at https://www.mdpi.com/article/10.3390/cancers13081885/s1, Figure S1: Representative images of DNA damage in siRNA-transfected cells; Figure S2: ML385 effect on cell viability as a single agent; Figure S3: Representative images of DNA damage in cells treated with artesunate and ML385; Figure S4: ZIP model demonstrating synergy between artesunate and ML385; Figure S5: Uncropped Western blots.

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