The polyamines putrescine, spermidine and spermine are intimately involved in the regulation of cellular growth and viability. Transduction of human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293T cells with an adenovirus encoding a key polyamine catabolic enzyme, spermidine N1-acetyltransferase 1 (SSAT1)/SAT1 (AdSAT1), leads to a rapid depletion of spermidine and spermine, arrest in cell growth and a decline in cell viability. Annexin V/propidium iodide FACS analyses, terminal uridine nucleotide end-labelling (TUNEL) and caspase 3 assays showed a clear indication of apoptosis in AdSAT1-transduced cells (at 24–72 h), but not in cells transduced with GFP-encoding adenovirus (AdGFP). Apoptosis in the polyamine-depleted cells occurs by the mitochondrial intrinsic pathway, as evidenced by loss of mitochondrial membrane potential, increase in pro-apoptotic Bax, decrease in anti-apoptotic Bcl-xl, Bcl2 and Mcl-1 and release of cytochrome c from mitochondria, upon transduction with AdSAT1. Moreover, TEM images of AdSAT1-transduced cells revealed morphological changes commonly associated with apoptosis, including cell shrinkage, nuclear fragmentation, mitochondrial alteration, vacuolization and membrane blebbing. The apoptosis appears to result largely from depletion of the polyamines spermidine and spermine, as the polyamine analogues α-methylspermidine (α-MeSpd) and N1,N12-dimethylspermine (Me2Spm) that are not substrates for SAT1 could partially restore growth and prevent apoptosis of AdSAT1-transduced cells. Inhibition of polyamine oxidases did not restore the growth of AdSAT1-transduced cells or block apoptosis, suggesting that the growth arrest and apoptosis were not induced by oxidative stress resulting from accelerated polyamine catabolism. Taken together, these data provide strong evidence that the depletion of the polyamines spermidine and spermine leads to mitochondria-mediated apoptosis.

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