Background Autotaxin (ATX) is a secreted glycoprotein with the lysophospholipase D (lysoPLD) activity to convert lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC) into lysophosphatidic acid (LPA), a bioactive lysophospholipid involved in diverse biological actions. ATX is highly expressed in some cancer cells and contributes to their tumorigenesis, invasion, and metastases, while in other cancer cells ATX is silenced or expressed at low level. The mechanism of ATX expression regulation in cancer cells remains largely unknown. Results In the present study, we demonstrated that trichostatin A (TSA), a well-known HDAC inhibitor (HDACi), significantly induced ATX expression in SW480 and several other cancer cells with low or undetectable endogenous ATX expression. ATX induction could be observed when HDAC3 and HDAC7 were down-regulated by their siRNAs. It was found that HDAC7 expression levels were low in the cancer cells with high endogenous ATX expression. Exogenous over-expression of HDAC7 inhibited ATX expression in these cells in a HDAC3-dependent manner. These data indicate that HDAC3 and HDAC7 collaboratively suppress ATX expression in cancer cells, and suggest that TSA induce ATX expression by inhibiting HDAC3 and HDAC7. The biological significance of this regulation mechanism was revealed by demonstrating that TSA-induced ATX protected cancer cells against TSA-induced apoptosis by producing LPA through its lysoPLD activity, which could be reversed by BrP-LPA and S32826, the inhibitors of the ATX-LPA axis. Conclusions We have demonstrated that ATX expression is repressed by HDAC3 and HDAC7 in cancer cells. During TSA treatment, ATX is induced due to the HDAC3 and HDAC7 inhibition and functionally antagonizes the TSA-induced apoptosis. These results reveal an internal HDACi-resistant mechanism in cancer cells, and suggest that the inhibition of ATX-LPA axis would be helpful to improve the efficacy of HDACi-based therapeutics against cancer.