Cells respond to DNA damage by activating complex signaling networks that decide cell fate, promoting not only DNA damage repair and survival but also cell death. We have developed a multiscale computational model that quantitatively links chemotherapy-induced DNA damage response signaling to cell fate. The computational model was trained and calibrated on extensive data from U2OS osteosarcoma cells, including the cell cycle distribution of the initial cell population, signaling data measured by Western blotting, and cell fate data in response to chemotherapy treatment measured by time-lapse microscopy. The resulting mechanistic model predicted the cellular responses to chemotherapy alone and in combination with targeted inhibitors of the DNA damage response pathway, which we confirmed experimentally. Computational models such as the one presented here can be used to understand the molecular basis that defines the complex interplay between cell survival and cell death and to rationally identify chemotherapy-potentiating drug combinations.
Cancer cells subvert host immune surveillance by altering immune checkpoint (IC) proteins. Some Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-associated tumors have higher Programmed Cell Death Ligand, PD-L1 expression. However, it is not known how EBV alters ICs in the context of its preferred host, the B lymphocyte and in derived lymphomas. Here, we found that latency III-expressing Burkitt lymphoma (BL), diffuse large B-cell lymphomas (DLBCL) or their EBNA2-transfected derivatives express high PD-L1. In a DLBCL model, EBNA2 but not LMP1 is sufficient to induce PD-L1. Latency III-expressing DLBCL biopsies showed high levels of PD-L1. The PD-L1 targeting oncosuppressor microRNA miR-34a was downregulated in EBNA2-transfected lymphoma cells. We identified early B-cell factor 1 (EBF1) as a repressor of miR-34a transcription. Short hairpin RNA (shRNA)-mediated knockdown of EBF1 was sufficient to induce miR-34a transcription, which in turn reduced PD-L1. MiR-34a reconstitution in EBNA2-transfected DLBCL reduced PD-L1 expression and increased its immunogenicity in mixed lymphocyte reactions (MLR) and in three-dimensional biomimetic microfluidic chips. Given the importance of PD-L1 inhibition in immunotherapy and miR-34a dysregulation in cancers, our findings may have important implications for combinatorial immunotherapy, which include IC inhibiting antibodies and miR-34a, for EBV-associated cancers.
Cancer cell survival is dependent on oxidative-stress defenses against reactive oxygen species (ROS) that accumulate during tumorigenesis. Here, we show a non-canonical oxidative-stress defense mechanism through TRPA1, a neuronal redox-sensing Ca2+-influx channel. In TRPA1-enriched breast and lung cancer spheroids, TRPA1 is critical for survival of inner cells that exhibit ROS accumulation. Moreover, TRPA1 promotes resistance to ROS-producing chemotherapies, and TRPA1 inhibition suppresses xenograft tumor growth and enhances chemosensitivity. TRPA1 does not affect redox status but upregulates Ca2+-dependent anti-apoptotic pathways. NRF2, an oxidant-defense transcription factor, directly controls TRPA1 expression, thus providing an orthogonal mechanism for protection against oxidative stress together with canonical ROS-neutralizing mechanisms. These findings reveal an oxidative-stress defense program involving TRPA1 that could be exploited for targeted cancer therapies.
Resistance to chemotherapy plays a significant role in cancer mortality. To identify genetic units affecting sensitivity to cytarabine, the mainstay of treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), we developed a comprehensive and integrated genome-wide platform based on a dual protein-coding and non-coding integrated CRISPRa screening (DICaS). Putative resistance genes were initially identified using pharmacogenetic data from 760 human pan-cancer cell lines. Subsequently, genome scale functional characterization of both coding and long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) genes by CRISPR activation was performed. For lncRNA functional assessment, we developed a CRISPR activation of lncRNA (CaLR) strategy, targeting 14,701 lncRNA genes. Computational and functional analysis identified novel cell-cycle, survival/apoptosis, and cancer signaling genes. Furthermore, transcriptional activation of the GAS6-AS2 lncRNA, identified in our analysis, leads to hyperactivation of the GAS6/TAM pathway, a resistance mechanism in multiple cancers including AML. Thus, DICaS represents a novel and powerful approach to identify integrated coding and non-coding pathways of therapeutic relevance.
The PI3K-AKT kinase signaling pathway is frequently deregulated in human cancers, particularly breast cancer, where amplification and somatic mutations of PIK3CA occur with high frequency in patients. Numerous small-molecule inhibitors targeting both PI3K and AKT are under clinical evaluation, but dose-limiting toxicities and the emergence of resistance limit therapeutic efficacy. Various resistance mechanisms to PI3K inhibitors have been identified, including de novo mutations, feedback activation of AKT, or cross-talk pathways. We found a previously unknown resistance mechanism to PI3K pathway inhibition that results in AKT rebound activation. In a subset of triple-negative breast cancer cell lines, treatment with a PI3K inhibitor or depletion of PIK3CA expression ultimately promoted AKT reactivation in a manner dependent on the E3 ubiquitin ligase Skp2, the kinases IGF-1R (insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor) and PDK-1 (phosphoinositide-dependent kinase-1), and the cell growth and metabolism-regulating complex mTORC2 (mechanistic target of rapamycin complex 2), but was independent of PI3K activity or PIP3 production. Resistance to PI3K inhibitors correlated with the increased abundance of Skp2, ubiquitylation of AKT, cell proliferation in culture, and xenograft tumor growth in mice. These findings reveal a ubiquitin signaling feedback mechanism by which PI3K inhibitor resistance may emerge in aggressive breast cancer cells.
Triple negative breast cancers (TNBC) are genetically characterized by aberrations in TP53 and a low rate of activating point mutations in common oncogenes, rendering it challenging in applying targeted therapies. We performed whole exome sequencing (WES) and RNAseq to identify somatic genetic alterations in mouse models of TNBCs driven by loss of Trp53 alone or in combination with Brca1. Amplifications or translocations that resulted in elevated oncoprotein expressions or oncoprotein-containing fusions, respectively, as well as frame-shift mutations of tumor suppressors were identified in approximately 50% of the tumors evaluated. While the spectrum of sporadic genetic alterations was diverse, the majority had in common the ability to activate the MAPK/PI3K pathways. Importantly, we demonstrated that approved or experimental drugs efficiently induce tumor regression specifically in tumors harboring somatic aberrations of the drug target. Our study suggests that the combination of WES and RNAseq on human TNBC will lead to the identification of actionable therapeutic targets for precision medicine guided TNBC treatment.
The precursor homocysteine is metabolized either through the methionine cycle to produce methionine or through the transsulfuration pathway to synthesize cysteine. Alternatively, cysteine can be obtained through uptake of its oxidized form, cystine. Many cancer cells exhibit methionine dependency such that their proliferation is impaired in growth media in which methionine is replaced by homocysteine. We showed that oncogenic PIK3CA and decreased expression of SLC7A11, a gene that encodes a cystine transporter also known as xCT, correlated with increased methionine dependency in breast cancer cells. Oncogenic PIK3CA was sufficient to confer methionine dependency to mammary epithelial cells, partly by decreasing cystine uptake through the transcriptional and posttranslational inhibition of xCT. Manipulation of xCT activity altered the proliferation of breast cancer cells in methionine-deficient, homocysteine-containing media, suggesting that it functionally contributed to methionine dependency. We propose that concurrent with decreased cystine uptake through xCT, PIK3CA mutant cells use homocysteine through the transsulfuration pathway to synthesize cysteine. Consequently, less homocysteine is available to produce methionine, contributing to methionine dependency. These results indicate that oncogenic PIK3CA alters methionine and cysteine utilization, partly by inhibiting xCT to contribute to the methionine dependency phenotype in breast cancer cells.
Combination cancer therapies aim to improve the probability and magnitude of therapeutic responses and reduce the likelihood of acquired resistance in an individual patient. However, drugs are tested in clinical trials on genetically diverse patient populations. We show here that patient-to-patient variability and independent drug action are sufficient to explain the superiority of many FDA-approved drug combinations in the absence of drug synergy or additivity. This is also true for combinations tested in patient-derived tumor xenografts. In a combination exhibiting independent drug action, each patient benefits solely from the drug to which his or her tumor is most sensitive, with no added benefit from other drugs. Even when drug combinations exhibit additivity or synergy in pre-clinical models, patient-to-patient variability and low cross-resistance make independent action the dominant mechanism in clinical populations. This insight represents a different way to interpret trial data and a different way to design combination therapies.
The tumor-suppressing transcription factor p53 is highly conserved at the protein level and plays a key role in the DNA damage response. One important aspect of p53 regulation is its dynamics in response to DNA damage, which include oscillations. Here, we observe that, while the qualitative oscillatory nature of p53 dynamics is conserved across cell lines derived from human, monkey, dog, mouse, and rat, the oscillation period is variable. Specifically, rodent cells exhibit rapid p53 oscillations, whereas dog, monkey, and human cells show slower oscillations. Computational modeling and experiments identify stronger negative feedback between p53 and MDM2 as the driver of faster oscillations in rodents, suggesting that the period of oscillation is a network-level property. In total, our study shows that despite highly conserved signaling, the quantitative features of p53 oscillations can diverge across evolution. We caution that strong amino acid conservation of proteins and transcriptional network similarity do not necessarily imply conservation of time dynamics.
Chemical sun filters are commonly used as active ingredients in sunscreens due to their efficient absorption of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Yet, it is known that these compounds can photochemically react with UV light and generate reactive oxygen species and oxidative stress in vitro, though this has yet to be validated in vivo. One label-free approach to probe oxidative stress is to measure and compare the relative endogenous fluorescence generated by cellular coenzymes nicotinamide adenine dinucleotides and flavin adenine dinucleotides. However, chemical sun filters are fluorescent, with emissive properties that contaminate endogenous fluorescent signals. To accurately distinguish the source of fluorescence in ex vivo skin samples treated with chemical sun filters, fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy data were processed on a pixel-by-pixel basis using a non-Euclidean separation algorithm based on Mahalanobis distance and validated on simulated data. Applying this method, ex vivo samples exhibited a small oxidative shift when exposed to sun filters alone, though this shift was much smaller than that imparted by UV irradiation. Given the need for investigative tools to further study the clinical impact of chemical sun filters in patients, the reported methodology may be applied to visualize chemical sun filters and measure oxidative stress in patients' skin.
Combinatorial genetic screening using CRISPR-Cas9 is a useful approach to uncover redundant genes and to explore complex gene networks. However, current methods suffer from interference between the single-guide RNAs (sgRNAs) and from limited gene targeting activity. To increase the efficiency of combinatorial screening, we employ orthogonal Cas9 enzymes from Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes. We used machine learning to establish S. aureus Cas9 sgRNA design rules and paired S. aureus Cas9 with S. pyogenes Cas9 to achieve dual targeting in a high fraction of cells. We also developed a lentiviral vector and cloning strategy to generate high-complexity pooled dual-knockout libraries to identify synthetic lethal and buffering gene pairs across multiple cell types, including MAPK pathway genes and apoptotic genes. Our orthologous approach also enabled a screen combining gene knockouts with transcriptional activation, which revealed genetic interactions with TP53. The "Big Papi" (paired aureus and pyogenes for interactions) approach described here will be widely applicable for the study of combinatorial phenotypes.
Immunotherapy with PD-1 checkpoint blockade is effective in only a minority of patients with cancer, suggesting that additional treatment strategies are needed. Here we use a pooled in vivo genetic screening approach using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing in transplantable tumours in mice treated with immunotherapy to discover previously undescribed immunotherapy targets. We tested 2,368 genes expressed by melanoma cells to identify those that synergize with or cause resistance to checkpoint blockade. We recovered the known immune evasion molecules PD-L1 and CD47, and confirmed that defects in interferon-γ signalling caused resistance to immunotherapy. Tumours were sensitized to immunotherapy by deletion of genes involved in several diverse pathways, including NF-κB signalling, antigen presentation and the unfolded protein response. In addition, deletion of the protein tyrosine phosphatase PTPN2 in tumour cells increased the efficacy of immunotherapy by enhancing interferon-γ-mediated effects on antigen presentation and growth suppression. In vivo genetic screens in tumour models can identify new immunotherapy targets in unanticipated pathways.
The emergence of resistance to poly-ADP-ribose polymerase inhibitors (PARPi) poses a threat to the treatment of BRCA1 and BRCA2 (BRCA1/2)-deficient tumours. Stabilization of stalled DNA replication forks is a recently identified PARPi-resistance mechanism that promotes genomic stability in BRCA1/2-deficient cancers. Dissecting the molecular pathways controlling genomic stability at stalled forks is critical. Here we show that EZH2 localizes at stalled forks where it methylates Lys27 on histone 3 (H3K27me3), mediating recruitment of the MUS81 nuclease. Low EZH2 levels reduce H3K27 methylation, prevent MUS81 recruitment at stalled forks and cause fork stabilization. As a consequence, loss of function of the EZH2/MUS81 axis promotes PARPi resistance in BRCA2-deficient cells. Accordingly, low EZH2 or MUS81 expression levels predict chemoresistance and poor outcome in patients with BRCA2-mutated tumours. Moreover, inhibition of Ezh2 in a murine Brca2(-/-) breast tumour model is associated with acquired PARPi resistance. Our findings identify EZH2 as a critical regulator of genomic stability at stalled forks that couples histone modifications to nuclease recruitment. Our data identify EZH2 expression as a biomarker of BRCA2-deficient tumour response to chemotherapy.
Ammonia is a ubiquitous by-product of cellular metabolism, however the biological consequences of ammonia production are not fully understood, especially in cancer. We find that ammonia is not merely a toxic waste product, but is recycled into central amino acid metabolism to maximize nitrogen utilization. Cancer cells primarily assimilated ammonia through reductive amination catalyzed by glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH), and secondary reactions enabled other amino acids, such as proline and aspartate, to directly acquire this nitrogen. Metabolic recycling of ammonia accelerated proliferation of breast cancer. In mice, ammonia accumulated in the tumor microenvironment, and was used directly to generate amino acids through GDH activity. These data show that ammonia not only is a secreted waste product, but a fundamental nitrogen source that can support tumor biomass.
BACKGROUND: Absence of pathologic complete response (pCR) to neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NACT) correlates with poor long-term survival in patients with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). These incomplete treatment responses are likely determined by mechanisms that enable cancer cells to resist being killed. However, the detailed characterization of a drug-resistant cancer cell state in residual TNBC tissue after NACT has remained elusive. AKT1(low) quiescent cancer cells (QCCs) are a quiescent, epigenetically plastic, and chemotherapy-resistant subpopulation initially identified in experimental cancer models. Here, we asked whether QCCs exist in primary tumors from patients with TNBC and persist after treatment with NACT. METHODS: We obtained pre-treatment biopsy, post-treatment mastectomy, and metastatic specimens from a retrospective cohort of TNBC patients treated with NACT at Massachusetts General Hospital (n = 25). Using quantitative automated immunofluorescence microscopy, QCCs were identified as AKT(low)/H3K9me2(low)/HES1(high) cancer cells using prespecified immunofluorescence intensity thresholds. QCCs were represented in 2D and 3D digital tumor maps and QCC percentage (QCC-P) and QCC cluster index (QCC-CI) were determined for each sample. RESULTS: We showed that QCCs exist as non-random and heterogeneously distributed clusters within primary breast tumors. In addition, these QCC clusters persist after treatment with multi-agent, multi-cycle, neoadjuvant chemotherapy in both residual primary tumors and nodal and distant metastases in patients with triple negative breast cancer. CONCLUSIONS: These first-in-human data potentially qualify AKT1(low) quiescent cancer cells as a non-genetic cell state that persists after neoadjuvant chemotherapy in triple negative breast cancer patients and warrants further study.
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a heterogeneous disease with complex molecular pathophysiology. To systematically characterize AML's genetic dependencies, we conducted genome-scale short hairpin RNA screens in 17 AML cell lines and analyzed dependencies relative to parallel screens in 199 cell lines of other cancer types. We identified 353 genes specifically required for AML cell proliferation. To validate the in vivo relevance of genetic dependencies observed in human cell lines, we performed a secondary screen in a syngeneic murine AML model driven by the MLL-AF9 oncogenic fusion protein. Integrating the results of these interference RNA screens and additional gene expression data, we identified the transcription factor ZEB2 as a novel AML dependency. ZEB2 depletion impaired the proliferation of both human and mouse AML cells and resulted in aberrant differentiation of human AML cells. Mechanistically, we showed that ZEB2 transcriptionally represses genes that regulate myeloid differentiation, including genes involved in cell adhesion and migration. In addition, we found that epigenetic silencing of the miR-200 family microRNAs affects ZEB2 expression. Our results extend the role of ZEB2 beyond regulating epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and establish ZEB2 as a novel regulator of AML proliferation and differentiation.
The essential job of precision medicine is to match the right drugs to the right patients. In cancer, precision medicine has been nearly synonymous with genomics. However, sobering recent studies have generally shown that most patients with cancer who receive genomic testing do not benefit from a genomic precision medicine strategy. Although some call the entire project of precision cancer medicine into question, I suggest instead that the tools employed must be broadened. Instead of relying exclusively on big data measurements of initial conditions, we should also acquire highly actionable functional information by perturbing-for example, with cancer therapies-viable primary tumor cells from patients with cancer.
Notch transcription complexes (NTCs) drive target gene expression by binding to two distinct types of genomic response elements, NTC monomer-binding sites and sequence-paired sites (SPSs) that bind NTC dimers. SPSs are conserved and have been linked to the Notch responsiveness of a few genes. To assess the overall contribution of SPSs to Notch-dependent gene regulation, we determined the DNA sequence requirements for NTC dimerization using a fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) assay and applied insights from these in vitro studies to Notch-"addicted" T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) cells. We found that SPSs contributed to the regulation of about a third of direct Notch target genes. Although originally described in promoters, SPSs are present mainly in long-range enhancers, including an enhancer containing a newly described SPS that regulates HES5 expression. Our work provides a general method for identifying SPSs in genome-wide data sets and highlights the widespread role of NTC dimerization in Notch-transformed leukemia cells.