Autophagy is a cell self-protective mechanism against arsenic-induced cell transformation

Tao Zhang, Yuanlin Qi, Mingjun Liao, Mei Xu, Kimberley A. Bower, Jacqueline A. Frank, Han Ming Shen, Jia Luo, Xianglin Shi, Gang Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Scopus citations


Subchronic exposure to arsenic increases the incidence of human cancers such as skin, lung, colon, and rectal cancer. The mechanism for arsenic-induced tumorigenesis is still not clear. It is generally believed that DNA damage and genomic instability, generated by arsenic-promoted oxidative stress, account largely for this process. The major sources of reactive oxygen species (ROS) are arsenic-damaged mitochondria. Autophagy is a catabolic process functioning in turnover of long-lived proteins and dysfunctional organelles such as mitochondria. Defects of autophagy under stress conditions promote genomic instability and increase the risk of tumorigenesis. In the present study using a human bronchial epithelial cell line, BEAS-2B cells, we investigated the role of autophagy in arsenic-induced cell transformation, an important step in arsenic tumorigenesis. Our results show that subchronic arsenic exposure induces BEAS-2B cell transformation accompanied with increased ROS generation and autophagy activation. However, the patterns for ROS and autophagy alteration are different. Arsenic exposure generated a prolonged and steady increase of ROS levels, whereas the activation of autophagy, after an initial boost by arsenic administration, decreases in response to subchronic arsenic exposure, although the activity is still higher than a nontreated control. Further stimulation of autophagy increases mitochondria turnover and decreases ROS generation and arsenic-induced cell transformation. Contrarily, inhibition of autophagy activity decreases mitochondria turnover and enhances arsenic-induced ROS generation and cell transformation. In addition, the mammalian target of rapamycin signaling pathway is involved in arsenic-mediated autophagy activation. Our results suggest that autophagy is a cell self-protective mechanism against arsenic-induced cell transformation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)298-308
Number of pages11
JournalToxicological Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2012


  • Arsenic
  • Autophagy
  • Oxidative stress
  • Transformation
  • Tumorigenesis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology


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