Monitoring apoptosis in intact cells by high-resolution magic angle spinning 1 H NMR spectroscopy

Marta Wylot, David T E Whittaker, Stephen A C Wren, John H Bothwell, Leslie Hughes, Julian L Griffin* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Apoptosis maintains an equilibrium between cell proliferation and cell death. Many diseases, including cancer, develop because of defects in apoptosis. A known metabolic marker of apoptosis is a notable increase in 1 H NMR-observable resonances associated with lipids stored in lipid droplets. However, standard one-dimensional NMR experiments allow the quantification of lipid concentration only, without providing information about physical characteristics such as the size of lipid droplets, viscosity of the cytosol, or cytoskeletal rigidity. This additional information can improve monitoring of apoptosis-based cancer treatments in intact cells and provide us with mechanistic insight into why these changes occur. In this paper, we use high-resolution magic angle spinning (HRMAS) 1 H NMR spectroscopy to monitor lipid concentrations and apparent diffusion coefficients of mobile lipid in intact cells treated with the apoptotic agents cisplatin or etoposide. We also use solution-state NMR spectroscopy to study changes in lipid profiles of organic solvent cell extracts. Both NMR techniques show an increase in the concentration of lipids but the relative changes are 10 times larger by HRMAS 1 H NMR spectroscopy. Moreover, the apparent diffusion rates of lipids in apoptotic cells measured by HRMAS 1 H NMR spectroscopy decrease significantly as compared with control cells. Slower diffusion rates of mobile lipids in apoptotic cells correlate well with the formation of larger lipid droplets as observed by microscopy. We also compared the mean lipid droplet displacement values calculated from the two methods. Both methods showed shorter displacements of lipid droplets in apoptotic cells. Our results demonstrate that the NMR-based diffusion experiments on intact cells discriminate between control and apoptotic cells. Apparent diffusion measurements in conjunction with 1 H NMR spectroscopy-derived lipid signals provide a novel means of following apoptosis in intact cells. This method could have potential application in enhancing drug discovery by monitoring drug treatments in vitro, particularly for agents that cause portioning of lipids such as apoptosis.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere4456
Number of pages14
JournalNMR in Biomedicine
Issue number3
Early online date4 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:We thank Dr Robert Shaw for useful discussions about statistical analysis and Cambridge Advanced Imaging Centre for access to the microscopyfacility. This work was supported by EPSRC, MRC, and Astra Zeneca.
FUNDING INFORMATION: Work in the JLG laboratory is sponsored by the Medical Research Council (MRC) (MR/P011705/1). MW is sponsored by an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) ICASE studentship in conjunction with Astra Zeneca (Studentship Reference 1 789 837).


  • applications
  • biophysical mechanisms of MR diffusion
  • cancer
  • cancer therapy responses
  • cellsand biofluids
  • diffusion methods
  • methods and engineering


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