BackgroundIncreased incidence of lung cancer among pulmonary tuberculosis patients suggests mycobacteria-induced tumorigenic response in the host. The alveolar epithelial cells, candidate cells that form lung adenocarcinoma, constitute a niche for mycobacterial replication and infection. We thus explored the possible mechanism of M. bovis Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG)-assisted tumorigenicity in type II epithelial cells, human lung adenocarcinoma A549 and other cancer cells.MethodsCancer cell lines originating from lung, colon, bladder, liver, breast, skin and cervix were treated with tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α in presence or absence of BCG infection. p53, COP1 and sonic hedgehog (SHH) signaling markers were determined by immunoblotting and luciferase assays, and quantitative real time PCR was done for p53-responsive pro-apoptotic genes and SHH signaling markers. MTT assays and Annexin V staining were utilized to study apoptosis. Gain- and loss-of-function approaches were used to investigate the role for SHH and COP1 signaling during apoptosis. A549 xenografted mice were used to validate the contribution of BCG during TNF-α treatment.ResultsHere, we show that BCG inhibits TNF-α-mediated apoptosis in A549 cells via downregulation of p53 expression. Substantiating this observation, BCG rescued A549 xenografts from TNF-α-mediated tumor clearance in nude mice. Furthermore, activation of SHH signaling by BCG induced the expression of an E3 ubiquitin ligase, COP1. SHH-driven COP1 targeted p53, thereby facilitating downregulation of p53-responsive pro-apoptotic genes and inhibition of apoptosis. Similar effects of BCG could be shown for HCT116, T24, MNT-1, HepG2 and HELA cells but not for HCT116 p53-/- and MDA-MB-231 cells.ConclusionOur results not only highlight possible explanations for the coexistence of pulmonary tuberculosis and lung cancer but also address probable reasons for failure of BCG immunotherapy of cancers.