The poor prognosis of locally advanced and metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is primarily mediated by the functional properties of cancer stem cells (CSCs) and resistance to chemoradiotherapy. We investigated whether the aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) inhibitor disulfiram (DSF) can enhance the sensitivity of therapy. Cell viability was assessed by the 1-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-3,5-diphenylformazan (MTT) and apoptosis assays, and the cell cycle and reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels were evaluated by fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). The radio-sensitizing effect was measured by a colony formation assay. The synergistic effects were calculated by combination index (CI) analyses. The DSF and DSF/Cu2+ inhibited the cell proliferation (inhibitory concentration 50 (IC50) of DSF and DSF/Cu2+ were 13.96 μM and 0.24 μM). DSF and cisplatin displayed a synergistic effect (CI values were < 1). DSF or DSF/Cu2+ abolished the cisplatin-induced G2/M arrest (from 52.9% to 40.7% and 41.1%), and combining irradiation (IR) with DSF or DSF/Cu2+ reduced the colony formation and attenuated the G2/M arrest (from 53.6% to 40.2% and 41.9%). The combination of cisplatin, DSF or DSF/Cu2+, and IR enhanced the radio-chemo sensitivity by inducing apoptosis (42.04% and 32.21%) and ROS activity (46.3% and 37.4%). DSF and DSF/Cu2+ enhanced the sensitivity of HNSCC to cisplatin and IR. Confirming the initial data from patient-derived tumor xenograft (PDX) supported a strong rationale to repurpose DSF as a radio-chemosensitizer and to assess its therapeutic potential in a clinical setting.
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