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Three-dimensional environment sensitizes pancreatic cancer cells to the anti-proliferative effect of budesonide by reprogramming energy metabolism.

BACKGROUND: Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is the most lethal cancer with an aggressive metastatic phenotype and very poor clinical prognosis. Interestingly, a lower occurrence of PDAC has been described in individuals with severe and long-standing asthma. Here we explored the potential link between PDAC and the glucocorticoid (GC) budesonide, a first-line therapy to treat asthma.

METHODS: We tested the effect of budesonide and the classical GCs on the morphology, proliferation, migration and invasiveness of patient-derived PDAC cells and pancreatic cancer cell lines, using 2D and 3D cultures in vitro. Furthermore, a xenograft model was used to investigate the effect of budesonide on PDAC tumor growth in vivo. Finally, we combined genome-wide transcriptome analysis with genetic and pharmacological approaches to explore the mechanisms underlying budesonide activities in the different environmental conditions.

RESULTS: We found that in 2D culture settings, high micromolar concentrations of budesonide reduced the mesenchymal invasive/migrating features of PDAC cells, without affecting proliferation or survival. This activity was specific and independent of the Glucocorticoid Receptor (GR). Conversely, in a more physiological 3D environment, low nanomolar concentrations of budesonide strongly reduced PDAC cell proliferation in a GR-dependent manner. Accordingly, we found that budesonide reduced PDAC tumor growth in vivo. Mechanistically, we demonstrated that the 3D environment drives the cells towards a general metabolic reprogramming involving protein, lipid, and energy metabolism (e.g., increased glycolysis dependency). This metabolic change sensitizes PDAC cells to the anti-proliferative effect of budesonide, which instead induces opposite changes (e.g., increased mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation). Finally, we provide evidence that budesonide inhibits PDAC growth, at least in part, through the tumor suppressor CDKN1C/p57Kip2.

CONCLUSIONS: Collectively, our study reveals that the microenvironment influences the susceptibility of PDAC cells to GCs and provides unprecedented evidence for the anti-proliferative activity of budesonide on PDAC cells in 3D conditions, in vitro and in vivo. Our findings may explain, at least in part, the reason for the lower occurrence of pancreatic cancer in asthmatic patients and suggest a potential suitability of budesonide for clinical trials as a therapeutic approach to fight pancreatic cancer.

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