Recent evidence suggests that resistance to antineoplastic therapy may result from mutations in genes mediating the apoptotic response to DNA damage. To determine the effects of epigenetic changes on tumor responsiveness to cytotoxic agents inducing DNA damage, we examined the chemosensitivity of neuroblastoma (NB) after differentiation by retinoic acid (RA). Differentiation of the cell lines SH-SY5Y and SMS-KCNR by RA abolished the cytotoxic effects of adriamycin (Adr) and cisplatin. Chemoresistance was not the result of decreased proliferation induced by RA because: (a) growth arrest by nutrient deprivation did not affect sensitivity; (b) growth arrested NB cell lines, which did not differentiate, remained chemosensitive; and (c) RA concentrations which promoted differentiation without affecting growth, induced resistance. Apoptosis characterized NB cells responding to Adr, although differentiated SH-SY5Y did not apoptose and were resistant to Adr and cisplatin. Marked induction of bcl-2 in NB cells followed RA-induced differentiation, whereas in cell lines failing to differentiate, bcl-2 was not detected. Our data indicate that NB differentiation induces drug resistance after a loss of the apoptotic response to antineoplastic drugs and suggest that bcl-2 overexpression is an important mechanism of resistance in differentiated tumor cells.

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This study was supported by NIH Grant 5P20 NS31076, the Price Family Foundation, and the Nissen family. A. L. is a recipient of an Italian Association for Cancer Research fellowship. A. I. is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Physican Research Fellow.

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