ALDH1A1 and HLTF modulate the activity of lysosomal autophagy inhibitors in cancer cells

Lysosomal autophagy inhibitors (LAI) such as hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) have significant activity in a subset of cancer cell lines. LAIs are being evaluated in cancer clinical trials, but genetic determinants of sensitivity to LAIs are unknown, making it difficult to predict which tumors would be most susceptible. Here we characterize differentially expressed genes in HCQ-sensitive (-S) and -resistant (-R) cancer cells. Notably, expression of canonical macroautophagy/autophagy genes was not associated with sensitivity to HCQ. Expression patterns of ALDH1A1 (aldehyde dehydrogenase 1 family member A1) and HLTF (helicase like transcription factor) identified HCQ-S (ALDH1A1high HLTFlow; ALDH1A1low HLTFlow) and HCQ-R (ALDH1A1low HLTFhigh) cells. ALDH1A1 overexpression was found to enhance LAI cell entry and cytotoxicity without directly affecting lysosome function or autophagic flux. Expression of HLTF allows repair of DNA damage caused by LAI-induced reactive oxygen species, leading to HCQ resistance. Sensitivity to HCQ is increased in cells where HLTF is silenced by promoter methylation. HLTF overexpression blunted the antitumor efficacy of chloroquine derivatives in vitro and in vivo. Analysis of tumor RNA sequencing data from >700 patients in the Cancer Genome Atlas identified cancers including colon cancer, renal cell carcinoma, and gastric cancers, that were enriched for the HCQ-S or HCQ-R signature. These results provide mechanistic insights into LAI efficacy, and guidance for LAI clinical development.