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Molecular Biology of the Cell

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Molecular Cancer Research

Tumor hypoxia is a well-described phenomenon during the progression of solid tumors affecting cell signaling pathways and cell metabolism; however, its role in hematologic malignancies has not been given the same attention in the literature. Therefore, this review focuses on the comparative differences between solid and hematologic malignancies with emphasis on the role of hypoxia during tumorigenesis and progression. In addition, contribution of the bone marrow and angiogenic environment are also discussed. Insight is provided into the role of hypoxia in metastatic spread, stemness, and drug resistance in hematologic conditions. Finally, emerging therapeutic strategies such as small-molecule prodrugs and hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) targeting approaches are outlined to combat hypoxic cells and/or adaptive mechanisms in the treatment of hematologic malignancies. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1347–54. ©2014 AACR.


Genetic and epigenetic events that alter gene expression and/or protein function or localization are thought to be the primary mechanism that drives tumorigenesis and governs the clinical behavior of cancers. Yet, a number of studies have shown that the effects of oncogene expression or tumor suppressor ablation are highly dependent on cell type. The molecular basis for this cell-type specificity and how it contributes to tumorigenesis are unknown. Here, expression of a truncated SV40 large T antigen in murine intestinal crypts promoted the formation of numerous adenomatous polyps in the colon and small intestine. In contrast, when the same T-antigen construct is expressed in villous enterocytes, the consequences are limited to hyperplasia and dysplasia. The T-antigen–induced polyps show high levels of the proto-oncogene c-Myc protein even though there is no transport of β-catenin to the nucleus. Targeting the expression of viral oncogenes to intestinal crypts or villi provides a murine model system for studying cell-type specific effects in tumorigenesis, and is particularly relevant to the study of APC/β-catenin–independent pathways contributing to the generation of intestinal polyps.

Implications: This mouse model system describes the formation of colon polyps in the absence of Wnt/β-catenin signaling. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1355–64. ©2014 AACR.


Mitochondrial targeted Szeto-Schiller (SS) peptides have recently gained attention for their antioxidative stress ability; however, the functional variations between normal and cancer cells have not been determined. Here, we report the results of such experiments conducted with a newly designed class of peptide called RY4, which is based on SS peptide sequence characteristics. The RY4 peptide exhibits distinct differences in antioxidative stress response between normal and cancer cells when challenged with chemotherapeutics like the glycolytic inhibitor dichloroacetate (DCA), the platinating agent carboplatin, and the DNA damage inducer doxorubicin. Interestingly, only normal human cells were protected by the RY4 peptide and catalase (CAT) activity was significantly enhanced in normal but not tumor cells when incubated with RY4. Pull-down, coimmunoprecipitation, and LC/MS-MS proteomic analysis demonstrated that RY4 and catalase are capable of forming protein complexes. Finally, in vivo efficacy was evaluated by intraperitoneal administration of RY4 into a lung cancer xenograft model, which revealed significant myocardiocyte protection from doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity without diminishing doxorubicin's tumoricidal effects. Taken together, RY4 offers selective protection to normal cells from chemotherapy-induced toxicity by enhancing the activity of cellular antioxidant enzymes.

Implications: RY4 peptides selectively reduce chemotherapeutic-induced oxidative stress and represent a new class of chemoprotective agents with clinical potential. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1365–76. ©2014 AACR.


Hepatocellular cancer (HCC) is a highly treatment-refractory cancer and is also highly resistant to adverse cellular stress. Although cell behavior can be modulated by noncoding RNAs (ncRNA) within extracellular vesicles (EV), the contributions of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) are largely unknown. To this end, the involvement and functional roles of lncRNAs contained within EVs during chemotherapeutic stress in human HCC were determined. Expression profiling identified a subset of lncRNAs that were enriched in tumor cell–derived vesicles released from two different cell lines. Of these, lincRNA-VLDLR (linc-VLDLR) was significantly upregulated in malignant hepatocytes. Exposure of HCC cells to diverse anticancer agents such as sorafenib, camptothecin, and doxorubicin increased linc-VLDLR expression in cells as well as within EVs released from these cells. Incubation with EVs reduced chemotherapy-induced cell death and also increased linc-VLDLR expression in recipient cells. RNAi-mediated knockdown of linc-VLDLR decreased cell viability and abrogated cell-cycle progression. Moreover, knockdown of VLDLR reduced expression of ABCG2 (ATP-binding cassette, subfamily G member 2), whereas overexpression of this protein reduced the effects of VLDLR knockdown on sorafenib-induced cell death. Here, linc-VLDLR is identified as an EV-enriched lncRNA that contributes to cellular stress responses.

Implications: These findings provide new insight into the role of EVs and demonstrate the capacity of lncRNAs to mediate chemotherapeutic stress response in HCC. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1377–87. ©2014 AACR.


Alterations of polycomb group (PcG) genes directly modulate the trimethylation of histone H3 lysine 27 (H3K27me3) and may thus affect the epigenome of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), which is crucial for controlling the HCC cell phenotype. However, the extent of downstream regulation by PcGs in HCC is not well defined. Using cDNA microarray analysis, we found that the target gene network of PcGs contains well-established genes, such as cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors (CDKN2A), and genes that were previously undescribed for their regulation by PcG, including E2F1, NOTCH2, and TP53. Using chromatin immunoprecipitation assays, we demonstrated that EZH2 occupancy coincides with H3K27me3 at E2F1 and NOTCH2 promoters. Interestingly, PcG repress the expression of the typical tumor suppressor TP53 in human HCC cells, and an increased level of PcG was correlated with the downregulation of TP53 in certain HCC specimens. Unexpectedly, we did not find obvious H3K27me3 modification or an EZH2 binding signal at the TP53 promoters, suggesting that PcG regulates TP53 expression in an H3K27me3-independent manner. Finally, the reduced expression of PcGs effectively blocked the aggressive signature of liver cancer cells in vitro and in vivo.

Implications: Taken together, our results establish the functional and mechanistic significance of certain gene regulatory networks that are regulated by PcGs in HCC. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1388–97. ©2014 AACR.


Cystathionine β-synthase (CBS) catalyzes metabolic reactions that convert homocysteine to cystathionine. To assess the role of CBS in human glioma, cells were stably transfected with lentiviral vectors encoding shRNA targeting CBS or a nontargeting control shRNA, and subclones were injected into immunodeficient mice. Interestingly, decreased CBS expression did not affect proliferation in vitro but decreased the latency period before rapid tumor xenograft growth after subcutaneous injection and increased tumor incidence and volume following orthotopic implantation into the caudate–putamen. In soft-agar colony formation assays, CBS knockdown subclones displayed increased anchorage-independent growth. Molecular analysis revealed that CBS knockdown subclones expressed higher basal levels of the transcriptional activator hypoxia-inducible factor 2α (HIF2α/EPAS1). HIF2α knockdown counteracted the effect of CBS knockdown on anchorage-independent growth. Bioinformatic analysis of mRNA expression data from human glioma specimens revealed a significant association between low expression of CBS mRNA and high expression of angiopoietin-like 4 (ANGPTL4) and VEGF transcripts, which are HIF2 target gene products that were also increased in CBS knockdown subclones. These results suggest that decreased CBS expression in glioma increases HIF2α protein levels and HIF2 target gene expression, which promotes glioma tumor formation.

Implications: CBS loss-of-function promotes glioma growth. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1398–406. ©2014 AACR.


Regions of acute and chronic hypoxia exist within solid tumors and can lead to increased rates of mutagenesis and/or altered DNA damage and repair protein expression. Base excision repair (BER) is responsible for resolving small, non–helix-distorting lesions from the genome that potentially cause mutations by mispairing or promoting DNA breaks during replication. Germline and somatic mutations in BER genes, such as MutY Homolog (MUTYH/MYH) and DNA-directed polymerase (POLB), are associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer. However, very little is known about the expression and function of BER proteins under hypoxic stress. Using conditions of chronic hypoxia, decreased expression of BER proteins was observed because of a mechanism involving suppressed BER protein synthesis in multiple colorectal cancer cell lines. Functional BER was impaired as determined by MYH- and 8-oxoguanine (OGG1)–specific glycosylase assays. A formamidopyrimidine-DNA glycosylase (Fpg) Comet assay revealed elevated residual DNA base damage in hypoxic cells 24 hours after H2O2 treatment as compared with normoxic controls. Similarly, high-performance liquid chromatography analysis demonstrated that 8-oxo-2'-deoxyguanosine lesions were elevated in hypoxic cells 3 and 24 hours after potassium bromate (KBrO3) treatment when compared with aerobic cells. Correspondingly, decreased clonogenic survival was observed following exposure to the DNA base damaging agents H2O2 and MMS, but not to the microtubule interfering agent paclitaxel. Thus, a persistent downregulation of BER components by the microenvironment modifies and facilitates a mutator phenotype, driving genetic instability and cancer progression.

Implications: Aberrant BER is a contributing factor for the observed genetic instability in hypoxic tumor cells. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1407–15. ©2014 AACR.


The high-molecular-weight glycosaminoglycan, hyaluronic acid (HA), makes up a significant portion of the brain extracellular matrix. Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a highly invasive brain tumor, is associated with aberrant HA secretion, tissue stiffening, and overexpression of the HA receptor CD44. Here, transcriptomic analysis, engineered materials, and measurements of adhesion, migration, and invasion were used to investigate how HA/CD44 ligation contributes to the mechanosensing and invasive motility of GBM tumor cells, both intrinsically and in the context of Arg-Gly-Asp (RGD) peptide/integrin adhesion. Analysis of transcriptomic data from The Cancer Genome Atlas reveals upregulation of transcripts associated with HA/CD44 adhesion. CD44 suppression in culture reduces cell adhesion to HA on short time scales (0.5-hour postincubation) even if RGD is present, whereas maximal adhesion on longer time scales (3 hours) requires both CD44 and integrins. Moreover, time-lapse imaging demonstrates that cell adhesive structures formed during migration on bare HA matrices are more short lived than cellular protrusions formed on surfaces containing RGD. Interestingly, adhesion and migration speed were dependent on HA hydrogel stiffness, implying that CD44-based signaling is intrinsically mechanosensitive. Finally, CD44 expression paired with an HA-rich microenvironment maximized three-dimensional invasion, whereas CD44 suppression or abundant integrin-based adhesion limited it. These findings demonstrate that CD44 transduces HA-based stiffness cues, temporally precedes integrin-based adhesion maturation, and facilitates invasion.

Implications: This study reveals that the CD44 receptor, which is commonly overexpressed in GBM tumors, is critical for cell adhesion, invasion, and mechanosensing of an HA-based matrix. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1416–29. ©2014 AACR.


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) arises at the convergence of genetic alterations in KRAS with a fostering microenvironment shaped by immune cell influx and fibrotic changes; identification of the earliest tumorigenic molecular mediators evokes the proverbial chicken and egg problem. Matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) are key drivers of tumor progression that originate primarily from stromal cells activated by the developing tumor. Here, MMP3, known to be expressed in PDA, was found to be associated with expression of Rac1b, a tumorigenic splice isoform of Rac1, in all stages of pancreatic cancer. Using a large cohort of human PDA tissue biopsies specimens, both MMP3 and Rac1b are expressed in PDA cells, that the expression levels of the two markers are highly correlated, and that the subcellular distribution of Rac1b in PDA is significantly associated with patient outcome. Using transgenic mouse models, coexpression of MMP3 with activated KRAS in pancreatic acinar cells stimulates metaplasia and immune cell infiltration, priming the stromal microenvironment for early tumor development. Finally, exposure of cultured pancreatic cancer cells to recombinant MMP3 stimulates expression of Rac1b, increases cellular invasiveness, and activation of tumorigenic transcriptional profiles.

Implications: MMP3 acts as a coconspirator of oncogenic KRAS in pancreatic cancer tumorigenesis and progression, both through Rac1b-mediated phenotypic control of pancreatic cancer cells themselves, and by giving rise to the tumorigenic microenvironment; these findings also point to inhibition of this pathway as a potential therapeutic strategy for pancreatic cancer. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1430–9. ©2014 AACR.


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is associated with a pronounced fibro-inflammatory stromal reaction that contributes to tumor progression. A critical step in invasion and metastasis is the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), which can be regulated by the Snail family of transcription factors. Overexpression of Snail (Snai1) and mutant KrasG12D in the pancreas of transgenic mice, using an elastase (EL) promoter, resulted in fibrosis. To identify how Snail modulates inflammation in the pancreas, we examined the effect of expressing Snail in EL-KrasG12D mice (KrasG12D/Snail) on mast cell infiltration, which has been linked to PDAC progression. Using this animal model system, it was demonstrated that there are increased numbers of mast cells in the pancreas of KrasG12D/Snail mice compared with control KrasG12D mice. In addition, it was revealed that human primary PDAC tumors with increased Snail expression are associated with increased mast cell infiltration, and that Snail expression in these clinical specimens positively correlated with the expression of stem cell factor (SCF/KITLG), a cytokine known to regulate mast cell migration. Concomitantly, SCF levels are increased in the KrasG12D/Snail mice than in control mice. Moreover, overexpression of Snail in PDAC cells increased SCF levels, and the media conditioned by Snail-expressing PDAC cells promoted mast cell migration. Finally, inhibition of SCF using a neutralizing antibody significantly attenuated Snail-induced migration of mast cells.

Implications: Together, these results elucidate how the EMT regulator Snail contributes to inflammation associated with PDAC tumors. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1440–8. ©2014 AACR.


Involvement of Ras in cancer initiation is known, but recent evidence indicates a role in cancer progression, including metastasis and invasion; however, the mechanism is still unknown. In this study, it was determined that human lung cancer cells with Ras mutations, among other popular mutations, showed significantly higher expression of CUB domain–containing protein 1 (CDCP1) than those without. Furthermore, activated Ras clearly induced CDCP1, whereas CDCP1 knockdown or inhibition of CDCP1 phosphorylation by Src-directed therapy abrogated anoikis resistance, migration, and invasion induced by activated-Ras. Activation of MMP2 and secretion of MMP9, in a model of Ras-induced invasion, was found to be regulated through induction of phosphorylated CDCP1. Thus, CDCP1 is required for the functional link between Ras and Src signaling during the multistage development of human malignant tumors, highlighting CDCP1 as a potent target for treatment in the broad spectrum of human cancers associated with these oncogenes.

Implications: CDCP1 protein induced by oncogenic Ras/Erk signaling is essential for Ras-mediated metastatic potential of cancer cells. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1449–59. ©2014 AACR.


Malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) is associated with asbestos exposure and is a cancer that has not been significantly affected by small molecule-based targeted therapeutics. Previously, we demonstrated the existence of functional subsets of lung cancer and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) cell lines in which fibroblast growth factor receptor (FGFR) autocrine signaling functions as a nonmutated growth pathway. In a panel of pleural mesothelioma cell lines, FGFR1 and FGF2 were coexpressed in three of seven cell lines and were significantly associated with sensitivity to the FGFR-active tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI), ponatinib, both in vitro and in vivo using orthotopically propagated xenografts. Furthermore, RNAi-mediated silencing confirmed the requirement for FGFR1 in specific mesothelioma cells and sensitivity to the FGF ligand trap, FP-1039, validated the requirement for autocrine FGFs. None of the FGFR1-dependent mesothelioma cells exhibited increased FGFR1 gene copy number, based on a FISH assay, indicating that increased FGFR1 transcript and protein expression were not mediated by gene amplification. Elevated FGFR1 mRNA was detected in a subset of primary MPM clinical specimens and like MPM cells; none harbored increased FGFR1 gene copy number. These results indicate that autocrine signaling through FGFR1 represents a targetable therapeutic pathway in MPM and that biomarkers distinct from increased FGFR1 gene copy number such as FGFR1 mRNA would be required to identify patients with MPM bearing tumors driven by FGFR1 activity.

Implications: FGFR1 is a viable therapeutic target in a subset of MPMs, but FGFR TKI-responsive tumors will need to be selected by a biomarker distinct from increased FGFR1 gene copy number, possibly FGFR1 mRNA or protein levels. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1460–9. ©2014 AACR.


Prostate cancer (CaP) recurrence after androgen ablation therapy remains a significant cause of mortality in aging men. Malignant progression and metastasis are typically driven by genetic and epigenetic changes controlled by the androgen receptor (AR). However, evidence suggests that activated nonreceptor tyrosine kinases, including those of the Src family kinases (SFK), directly phosphorylate AR, thereby activating its transcriptional activity in the absence of serum androgen levels. To ascertain whether CaP progression and metastasis require SFK members, an autochthonous transgenic adenocarcinoma (AD) of the mouse prostate (TRAMP) model was crossed into Src-, Lyn- or Fyn-null backgrounds. Primary-site CaP formation was dependent on Src, to a lesser extent, Lyn, but not Fyn. Only Src/;TRAMP prostate tumors were marked by reactive stroma. SFK deficiency did not affect progression to neuroendocrine (NE) disease, although there were fewer new cancer cases initiating after 34 weeks in the SFK–/–;TRAMP mice compared with TRAMP controls. Of note, 15% to 21% of older (>33 weeks) Lyn- or Fyn-null TRAMP mice lacking primary-site tumors suffered from aggressive metastatic AD growths, compared with 3% of TRAMP mice. Taken with the data that TRAMP mice lacking Src or Lyn exhibited fewer macroscopic metastases compared with Fyn/;TRAMP and TRAMP controls, this suggests that SFK can either promote or suppress specific parameters of metastatic growth, possibly depending on cross-talk with primary tumors. These data identify critical, yet potentially opposing roles played by various SFKs in the initiation and metastatic potential of CaP using the TRAMP model.

Implications: Genetically defined mouse models indicate a critical role for Src tyrosine kinase in CaP initiation and metastatic progression. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1470–9. ©2014 AACR.


Patients with metastatic disease face high rates of mortality with a paucity of therapeutic options. Protein-based therapeutics provide advantages over traditional chemotherapy through increased specificity, decreased immune impairment, and more direct means of delivery. However, development is often hindered because of insufficient knowledge about protein processing by cells when exogenously applied. This study focuses on recombinant Maspin (rMaspin), a serine protease inhibitor (SERPINB5), which alters invasive properties when directly applied to cancer cells. Previous evidence suggests differences in the effects of rMaspin treatment when compared with endogenous reexpression, with little explanation for these discrepancies. A leading hypothesis is that exogenously applied rMaspin is subject to different regulatory and/or processing mechanisms in cancer cells when compared with endogenous expression. Therefore, a more detailed understanding of the mechanisms of internalization and subcellular trafficking of rMaspin is needed to guide future translational development. We describe the molecular trafficking of rMaspin in cytoplasmic vesicles of the endosomal/lysosomal pathway and characterize its uptake by multiple endocytic mechanisms. Time-lapse laser scanning confocal microscopy shows the uptake, in real time, of dye-labeled rMaspin in cancer cells. This study indicates that cellular processing of rMaspin plays a key role by affecting its biologic activity and highlights the need for new approaches aimed at increasing the availability of rMaspin when used to treat cancer.

Implications: Novel characterization of internalization and subcellular trafficking of rMaspin provides new insights for future therapeutic development. Mol Cancer Res; 12(10); 1480–91. ©2014 AACR.