The anticancer properties of ceramide, a sphingolipid with potent tumor-suppressor properties, can be dampened via glycosylation, notably in multidrug resistance wherein ceramide glycosylation is characteristically elevated. Earlier works using the ceramide analog, C6-ceramide, demonstrated that the antiestrogen tamoxifen, a first generation P-glycoprotein (P-gp) inhibitor, blocked C6-ceramide glycosylation and magnified apoptotic responses. The present investigation was undertaken with the goal of discovering non-anti-estrogenic alternatives to tamoxifen that could be employed as adjuvants for improving the efficacy of ceramide-centric therapeutics in treatment of cancer. Herein we demonstrate that the tamoxifen metabolites, desmethyltamoxifen and didesmethyltamoxifen, and specific, high-affinity P-gp inhibitors, tariquidar and zosuquidar, synergistically enhanced C6-ceramide cytotoxicity in multidrug resistant HL-60/VCR acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) cells, whereas the selective estrogen receptor antagonist, fulvestrant, was ineffective. Active C6-ceramide-adjuvant combinations elicited mitochondrial ROS production and cytochrome c release, and induced apoptosis. Cytotoxicity was mitigated by introduction of antioxidant. Effective adjuvants markedly inhibited C6-ceramide glycosylation as well as conversion to sphingomyelin. Active regimens were also effective in KG-1a cells, a leukemia stem cell-like line, and in LoVo human colorectal cancer cells, a solid tumor model. In summary, our work details discovery of the link between P-gp inhibitors and the regulation and potentiation of ceramide metabolism in a pro-apoptotic direction in cancer cells. Given the active properties of these adjuvants in synergizing with C6-ceramide, independent of drug resistance status, stemness, or cancer type, our results suggest that the C6-ceramide-containing regimens could provide alternative, promising therapeutic direction, in addition to finding novel, off-label applications for P-gp inhibitors.
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