Background Salinomycin has cytotoxic effects on various types of malignancy and induces autophagy. However, it has not been clarified whether autophagy induced by salinomycin treatment has a protective or cytotoxic role. We investigated whether salinomycin affects autophagy in pancreatic cancer cells and whether autophagy induced by salinomycin treatment has a protective or cytotoxic role in these cells. Methods We investigated the effect of salinomycin using three pancreatic cancer cell lines. We investigated effect on proliferation and the CD133 positive fraction using flow cytometry. In addition, we monitored the change in autophagic activity after salinomycin treatment using fluorescent immunostaining, western blotting, and flow cytometry. Finally, knockdown of ATG5 or ATG7 by siRNA was used to investigate the impact of autophagy inhibition on sensitivity to salinomycin. Results Salinomycin suppressed the proliferation of pancreatic cancer cells in a concentration dependent manner, and reduced the CD133 positive fraction. Salinomycin enhanced autophagy activity in these cells in a concentration dependent manner. Autophagy inhibition made pancreatic cancer cells more sensitive to salinomycin. Conclusions Our data provide the first evidence indicating that autophagy induced by salinomycin have a protective role in pancreatic cancer cells. A new therapeutic strategy of combining salinomycin, autophagy inhibitors, and anticancer drugs could hold promise for pancreatic cancer treatment.
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