Featured Publications

Lien, E.C., Ghisolfi, L., Geck, R.C., Asara, J.M. & Toker, A. Oncogenic PI3K promotes methionine dependency in breast cancer cells through the cystine-glutamate antiporter xCT. Science Signaling 10, 510, (2017). Publisher's VersionAbstract
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.
Najm, F.J., et al. Orthologous CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes for combinatorial genetic screens. Nat Biotechnol (2017).Abstract
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.
Stewart-Ornstein, J., Cheng, H.W.J. & Lahav, G. Conservation and Divergence of p53 Oscillation Dynamics across Species. Cell Syst 5, 4, 410-417.e4 (2017).Abstract
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.
Osseiran, S., et al. Non-Euclidean phasor analysis for quantification of oxidative stress in ex vivo human skin exposed to sun filters using fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy. J Biomed Opt 22, 12, 1-10 (2017).Abstract
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.
Malone, C.F., et al. mTOR and HDAC Inhibitors Converge on the TXNIP/Thioredoxin Pathway to Cause Catastrophic Oxidative Stress and Regression of RAS-Driven Tumors. Cancer Discov 7, 12, 1450-1463 (2017).Abstract
Although agents that inhibit specific oncogenic kinases have been successful in a subset of cancers, there are currently few treatment options for malignancies that lack a targetable oncogenic driver. Nevertheless, during tumor evolution cancers engage a variety of protective pathways, which may provide alternative actionable dependencies. Here, we identify a promising combination therapy that kills NF1-mutant tumors by triggering catastrophic oxidative stress. Specifically, we show that mTOR and HDAC inhibitors kill aggressive nervous system malignancies and shrink tumors in vivo by converging on the TXNIP/thioredoxin antioxidant pathway, through cooperative effects on chromatin and transcription. Accordingly, TXNIP triggers cell death by inhibiting thioredoxin and activating apoptosis signal-regulating kinase 1 (ASK1). Moreover, this drug combination also kills NF1-mutant and KRAS-mutant non-small cell lung cancers. Together, these studies identify a promising therapeutic combination for several currently untreatable malignancies and reveal a protective nodal point of convergence between these important epigenetic and oncogenic enzymes.Significance: There are no effective therapies for NF1- or RAS-mutant cancers. We show that combined mTOR/HDAC inhibitors kill these RAS-driven tumors by causing catastrophic oxidative stress. This study identifies a promising therapeutic combination and demonstrates that selective enhancement of oxidative stress may be more broadly exploited for developing cancer therapies. Cancer Discov; 7(12); 1450-63. ©2017 AACR.This article is highlighted in the In This Issue feature, p. 1355.