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The Endogenous Cannabinoid Anandamide Inhibits Human Breast Cancer Cell Proliferation

Julie Gardener

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The endogenous cannabinoid anandamide inhibits human breast cancer cell proliferation

Luciano De Petrocellis, Dominique Melck, Antonella Palmisano, Tiziana Bisogno, Chiara Laezza, Maurizio Bifulco, and Vincenzo Di Marz
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998 July 7


Anandamide was the first brain metabolite shown to act as a ligand of “central” CB1 cannabinoid receptors. Here we report that the endogenous cannabinoid potently and selectively inhibits the proliferation of human breast cancer cells in vitro. Anandamide dose-dependently inhibited the proliferation of MCF-7 and EFM-19 cells with IC50 values between 0.5 and 1.5 μM and 83–92% maximal inhibition at 5–10 μM. The proliferation of several other nonmammary tumoral cell lines was not affected by 10 μM anandamide. The anti-proliferative effect of anandamide was not due to toxicity or to apoptosis of cells but was accompanied by a reduction of cells in the S phase of the cell cycle. A stable analogue of anandamide (R)-methanandamide, another endogenous cannabinoid, 2-arachidonoylglycerol, and the synthetic cannabinoid HU-210 also inhibited EFM-19 cell proliferation, whereas arachidonic acid was much less effective. These cannabimimetic substances displaced the binding of the selective cannabinoid agonist [3H]CP 55,940 to EFM-19 membranes with an order of potency identical to that observed for the inhibition of EFM-19 cell proliferation. Moreover, anandamide cytostatic effect was inhibited by the selective CB1 receptor antagonist SR 141716A. Cell proliferation was arrested by a prolactin mAb and enhanced by exogenous human prolactin, whose mitogenic action was reverted by very low (0.1–0.5 μM) doses of anandamide. Anandamide suppressed the levels of the long form of the prolactin receptor in both EFM-19 and MCF-7 cells, as well as a typical prolactin-induced response, i.e., the expression of the breast cancer cell susceptibility gene brca1. These data suggest that anandamide blocks human breast cancer cell proliferation through CB1-like receptor-mediated inhibition of endogenous prolactin action at the level of prolactin receptor.

Anandamide (N-arachidonoyl-ethanolamine), the first endogenous ligand of central (CB1) cannabinoid receptors, was isolated from porcine brain in 1992. Since its discovery, several CB1-mediated effects have been reported for this endogenous cannabinoid in numerous mammalian tissues. Of special interest for the development of new drugs seem to be the pharmacological actions exerted by anandamide in peripheral tissues. In the cardiovascular system, anandamide induces hypotension and bradycardia and lowers ocular blood pressure. In the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts, the cannabimimetic metabolite inhibits smooth muscle contraction. Anandamide and CB1 receptors have been suggested to play a modulatory role during uterus–embryo interactionS. Finally, anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol, another putative “endogenous cannabinoid”, have been shown to affect lymphocyte and macrophage function, even though it is not clear yet whether these immunomodulatory actions are mediated by the CB1 or the “peripheral” CB2 cannabinoid receptor subtype.

A neuroendocrine function for anandamide also was proposed on the basis of the interactions between psychoactive cannabinoids and steroid hormone action, described previously, and of the finding of anandamide stimulatory or suppressing effects on the serum levels, respectively, of corticosterone or prolactin and growth hormone. Recently, further insights have been gained on the hypothalamic cellular targets of anandamide that are at the basis of its CB1-mediated regulatory action on the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis.

Based on this background, in the present study we have addressed the question of whether anandamide would exert a modulatory effect on the proliferation of human breast cancer (HBC) cells, which has been suggested to depend on prolactin and estrogens. In asmuch as they express prolactin receptors, respond to prolactin treatment, and synthesize their own prolactin, these cells are similar to B and T lymphocytes, whose proliferation has been shown to be stimulated by the hormone and inhibited by cannabinoids, anandamide, and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. Therefore, we have investigated the possible anti-mitogenic action of anandamide and other cannabimimetic compounds on two epitheloid HBC cell lines, EFM-19 and MCF-7 cells, that have been used widely in the past for studies on the pharmacology and biochemistry of lactogenic hormones.


Cell Proliferation Assays, [3H]thymidine

Incorporation Studies, and Effect on Cell Cycle.

Anandamide was synthesized in large amounts and purified as described. Arachidonoyl-trifluoromethyl-ketone and (R)-methanandamide were purchased from Biomol (Plymouth Meeting, PA), and arachidonic acid and human prolactin were purchased from Sigma. SR 141716A and HU-210 were gifts from Sanofi Recherche, Montpellier, France, and Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, respectively. Prolactin mAb was purchased from Pierce. EFM-19, MCF-7, and BT-474 cells, purchased from DSM, Braunschweig, Germany, and T-47D cells, purchased from American Type Culture Collection, were cultured in diafiltered media prepared according to the instructions of the manufacturers except for MCF-7 cells, which were cultured in diafiltered minimal essential medium containing 5% heat-inactivated fetal bovine serum. These culture media contained no detectable prolactin by radioimmunoassay. Cell proliferation assays were carried out in triplicate by a slight modification of the method described in 6-well dishes containing subconfluent cells (at a density of ≈50,000 cells/well). When using EFM-19 and BT-474 cells, which take 24 h to completely adhere to plastic and start growing, substances to be tested were introduced 24 h after cell seeding. With MCF-7 and T-47D cells, which immediately adhere to plastic and start growing, substances to be tested were introduced 6 h after cell seeding. Depending on the experiment, various doses or one single dose of the substances was assayed, and cells were trypsinized and counted by a hemocytometer, respectively, after 3 (MCF-7 and T-47D cells) or 6 (EFM-19 and BT-474 cells) days or day by day. This method also allowed us to check cell viability by the addition of trypan blue to aliquots of trypsinized cells. No significant decrease in cell viability was observed with up to 100 μM anandamide. For [3H]thymidine incorporation studies, EFM-19 and MCF-7 cells were synchronised in G0/G1 for 40 h with the 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-CoA-reductase inhibitor lovastatin (10 μM) and treated for 72 h with increasing doses of anandamide before 24-h incubation with 106 cpm [3H]thymidine (5 μCi/mmol, Amersham) plus anandamide. The experiment was terminated by washing the cells twice with ice-cold Hanks’ balanced salt solution before addition of ice-cold 10% trichloroacetic acid. Radioactivity and DNA content were measured in the trichloroacetic acid precipitate. The effect of anandamide on cell cycle progression was studied in cells fixed with ethanol and stained with propidium iodide. DNA content was measured by FACStar flow cytometry as previously described by us. Possible apoptotic effects of anandamide in EFM-19 and MCF-7 cells were studied by DNA fragmentation and FACStar flow cytometry.

[14C]Anandamide Hydrolysis by Cells.

The time-dependent hydrolysis of [14C]anandamide (60,000 cpm, 1.5 μM in 6 ml of serum-free culture medium) by intact, sub-confluent EFM-19 cells (in a 100-mm Petri dish) was measured as [14C]ethanolamine produced per 500 μl of incubation medium as described.

Binding Assays.

Competition binding studies were performed by using [3H]CP 55,940 (New England Nuclear, 125 Ci/mmol) as the radioligand and according to the rapid filtration assay described previously with slight modifications. These modifications consisted of the use of 12,000 × g pellets from EFM-19 and MCF-7 cells (200 μg/tube), the introduction of phenyl-methyl-sulfonyl-fluoride (Sigma, 100 μM) in the binding buffer, and the use of a higher concentration (300 pM) of radioligand. Nonspecific binding was determined in the presence of 10 μM anandamide or HU-210 and accounted for 51% of total bound radioactivity.

Immunoprecipitation and Western Immunoblotting.

EFM-19 or MCF-7 cells, treated with either vehicle, anandamide (2.5 μM), or anandamide plus SR 141716A (0.5 μM), were washed twice with 137 mM NaCl, 3 mM KCl, 12 mM Na2HPO4, and 2 mM KH2PO4 (pH 7.4) and then lysed with a lysis buffer consisting of 50 mM Tris⋅HCl (pH 7.4), 1 mM EDTA, 150 mM NaCl, 1 mM Na3VO4, 1 mM NaF, 1% Nonidet P-40, 0.25% sodium deoxycholate, 1 mM phenyl-methyl-sulfonyl-fluoride, and 1 μg/ml each aprotinin, leupeptin, and pepstatin A. Triton X-100 (1%) also was added for determination of the brca1 protein. Immunoprecipitation of prolactin receptor was carried out with 2 μg of an anti-prolactin receptor mAb (U5, purchased from Affinity Bioreagents, Golden, CO) on 1 mg of total proteins for 1 h at 4°C. A suspension of anti-mouse IgG agarose (20 μl, corresponding to 8 μg of IgG, Sigma) then was added, and the mixture was incubated overnight at 4°C. The pellet was washed five times with 1 ml of lysis buffer, resuspended in 20 μl of electrophoresis sample buffer, and boiled for 5 min before loading onto the SDS/polyacrylamide gel. SDS/PAGE of immunoprecipitated proteins (for prolactin receptor analysis) and total proteins (for brca1 protein analysis, 50 μg) were carried out on gels containing, respectively, 10% and 7.5% polyacrylamide. Proteins were transferred to nitrocellulose membranes, which then were incubated first for 1 h at room temperature with the first antibody, i.e., anti-prolactin receptor mAb (1:1000), anti-phosphotyrosine polyclonal antibody (1:1000, Amersham), or anti-brca1 protein polyclonal antibody (K-18, 1:100, Santa Cruz Biotechnologies) and then with the appropriate horseradish peroxidase-labeled second antibody conjugates (1:5000, enhanced chemiluminescence, Amersham).

Data Analysis.

Data from cell proliferation experiments were expressed as mean ± SEM (or SD) of percentage of cell proliferation in untreated cells and were compared by using the unpaired Student’s t test (level of significance P < 0.05).


Anandamide dose-dependently inhibited the proliferation of human breast epitheloid EFM-19 cells with an average IC50 value of 1.5 ± 0.3 μM and 92.0 ± 4.0% maximal inhibition at 10 μM (mean ± SEM, n = 7; Fig. ​Fig.11a). Anandamide was administered daily at each change of the culture medium because cells were found to convert rapidly 1.5 μM [14C]anandamide to [14C]ethanolamine and arachidonic acid with a predicted t1/2 of ≈6 h (Fig. ​(Fig.1a1a Inset). However, when cell proliferation was measured daily, anandamide effect was already noticeable (and maximal) after 48 h of treatment of cells, i.e., when the exponential phase of cell growth is about to start (Fig. ​(Fig.11b). Anandamide anti-proliferative action was due to inhibition of DNA synthesis, measured by determining the incorporation of [3H]thymidine in DNA (see legend to Fig. ​Fig.1),1), and was not due to toxic effects or apoptosis of cells, as assessed by testing the effect on cell viability and DNA fragmentation, respectively. Analogous results were obtained with other HBC cell lines, i.e., the widely studied MCF-7 cells, where anandamide effect was even more marked (estimated IC50 = 0.5 μM, 83% maximal inhibition at 5 μM after a 3-day treatment, Fig. ​Fig.11a) and T-47D or BT-474 cells (estimated IC50 = 1.9 and 6 μM, respectively; data not shown). Conversely, no anti-proliferative effect was observed with a 10-μM concentration of anandamide in several tumoral lines derived from other cell types (e.g., mouse neuroblastoma N18TG2 cells, rat leukemic RBL-2H3 basophils, mouse heart endothelioma H5V cells, and mouse J774 macrophages) (data not shown). Of interest, anandamide appeared to inhibit significantly and dose-dependently the G1/S transition of the cell mitotic cycle in EFM-19 cells (the decrease of cells in the S phase was 9.9 ± 3.9 and 36.8 ± 9.6% at 1 and 5 μM anandamide, respectively, mean ± SD, n = 3).

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