Anticancer chemotherapeutic drugs mainly trigger apoptosis induction to eliminate malignant cells. However, many cancer cells are chemoresistant because of defective apoptosis induction. Targeting the autophagic pathway is currently regarded as an alternative strategy for cancer drug discovery. Penfluridol, an antipsychotic drug, has been reported to exert oncostatic effects, but the effect of penfluridol on lung cancer remains unknown. Herein, the antitumor activity of penfluridol was determined in vitro in non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines using MTS, plate clonogenic, and transwell migration assays and in vivo in an orthotopic xenograft model. Flow cytometry, holotomographic microscopy, immunofluorescence, and immunohistochemistry were employed to determine the cell-death phenotype induced by penfluridol in vitro and in vivo. Western blotting and genetic knockdown by small interfering RNA were performed to explore the underlying mechanisms involved in penfluridol-mediated cell death. We uncovered that penfluridol inhibited the viability and motility of NSCLC cells in vitro and in vivo. Penfluridol induced nonapoptotic cell death by blocking autophagic flux and inducing accumulation of autophagosome-related protein, light chain 3 (LC3) B-II, in HCC827 and A549 NSCLC cells, and in an A549 orthotopic xenograft tumor model. Autophagosome accumulation-induced cell viability inhibition by penfluridol was mainly attributed to ATP energy deprivation. Moreover, we observed that patients with lung tumors expressing high LC3B had longer overall and disease-free survival times. Mechanistically, upregulation of endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress-induced unfolded protein response (UPR) pathways and activation of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) were critical for penfluridol-induced autophagosome accumulation. Our findings identify that penfluridol acts as an inducer of ER stress and p38 MAPK activation, which led to UPR-mediated nonapoptotic cell death via autophagosome accumulation-caused energy loss. Penfluridol is clinically used for schizophrenia, and our study results strongly support penfluridol as a repurposed drug for treating NSCLC.
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